To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5
Today, February 14th is Valentine’s Day – a celebration of romantic love, cupid, hearts, and flowers. The holiday has become a favorite of greeting card makers, florists, and star-crossed lovers – but where did it come from? The exact origins of the day have been lost to the mists of history, but there is no shortage of theories – from a grand Hallmark conspiracy to the Roman pagan festival of Lupercalia (spoiler alert: it’s not). However, the most reliable accounts point to St. Valentine, a 3rd century Christian priest. Let’s celebrate this day by looking at what we know, what legend says, and maybe a peek at what that means for modern marketers.
Lost in Legend
As with much ancient history, the story of Valentine is shrouded in mystery, speculation, and legend – but there are a few solid historical facts from which to start our story. Saint Valentine was a Christian priest in Rome in the mid-3rd century, he was executed by Roman authorities early in 496 and was most likely buried on February 14th of that year. That’s about all we know for sure – the rest is pieced together from legends, myths, and stories.
The lack of historical records around the live and death of Valentine is compounded by the massive destruction of records that happened during the Diocletianic persecution (the last persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire – occurring around the beginning of the 4th century). So much for the facts, let’s get to the speculations!
Love & Loss in Rome
According to legend, Valentine became associated with romantic love as he was secretly marrying Roman soldiers against the will of the emperor. The story goes that Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage among his armies, believing that single men made for better fighters – but Valentine, in service of true love, offered to perform marriages for any love-struck soldiers despite the emperor’s command. Never mind the facts that Claudius actually encouraged his soldiers to take war brides and that most Roman soldiers would not want a Christian priest performing their marriage, the story makes for a great backdrop to the modern practice of romantic cards and flowers.
Another story of St. Valentine perhaps hits a bit closer to the truth – after he was jailed (for being a Christian, not for performing secret military weddings) Valentine struck up a friendship with his jailer’s daughter, Julia (some legends say he even miraculously healed her blindness). The two became close and on the eve of his execution, Valentine wrote Julia a farewell letter and signed it, “Your Valentine” – giving way to the popular modern expression.
A Growing Legend
Even with all the lovely legends that sprung up around the story of Valentine, his feast day was simply to commemorate his martyrdom for the first thousand years. It wasn’t until the courtly love traditions of the high middle ages that the day of Valentine became connected to romantic love, lovers, and poems. Geoffrey Chaucer (of Canterbury Tales fame) wrote one of the earliest Valentine’s poems in 1382, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
By the early 17th century, Valentine’s Day had come to fully embrace the romantic perspective – as in the Shakespeare quote above from Hamlet (written in 1600 or 1601). And by the 1780’s we get this familiar piece of Valentine’s rhyme:
The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.
Valentine’s in the Modern World
Fast forward to 2017 and Valentine’s Day is still about celebrating romantic love – but now instead of writing poems we buy gift cards and flowers. According to a 2013 study, Americans spend an average of $131 per person on Valentine’s day gifts, cards, and flowers – resulting in over 19-billion dollars every year!
Marketers and advertisers have been quick to jump on Valentine’s Day as a way to boost sales – as we know have specials on everything from chocolate to furniture. And the phenomenon is far from isolated to the United States – Valentine’s day spending is growing worldwide from Asia to Europe to Latin America. Whatever the true origin of Valentine’s day, it looks to be a Holiday that is here to stay.