Why (and how) do we celebrate Valentine's Day?



Personally I'm not a great fan of celebrating Valentine's Day, at least not in the grand way it is often celebrated now with huge gifts, overly priced chocolates and ridiculously expensive trips to the restaurant (where on any other day a booking for two would cost a fraction of the price).

In my opinion, love should be expressed daily, all year round, not simply reserved for a single day each year. And there are plenty of ways to express romantic intent than buying gifts...

Despite this, I do find the history and mythology of Valentine's Day rather interesting. Call me a closet romantic if you will, but I do enjoy a nice love story and wouldn't object to my other half writing out a heartfelt verse in honour of the day.

So let's consider the history of Valentine's Day: why February 14th has traditionally become the day we send anonymous cards and reaffirm our love. Who was Saint Valentine, and how has his legend come to be celebrated so lavishly?
There were many Christian Saints named Valentine, though the most legendary was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and ministering to Christians who were persecuted by the Roman Empire. This Valentine is said to have healed the blind daughter of his jailer, Asterius, and it's said that he wrote a farewell letter to her before his execution which he signed "from your Valentine".

Whether or not he was executed on February 14th is open to interpretation, though this date is an official feast day for the Anglican Communion and Lutherian Church.

Valentine's Day was not associated with romantic love until the Chaucerian Middle Ages, a time when courtly love flourished. This day was marked by the giving of love tokens: flowers, confectionery and cards which became known as "Valentines".

Mass-produced paper cards did not arrive until the 19th century - prior to this, such "Valentines" were handmade from real lace and ribbons featuring heart-shaped symbols, doves and the traditional personification of Cupid.

Valentine Verse

The first record of a Valentine we know of was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife in the fifteenth century, while he was awaiting his execution in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt:
Je suis desja d'amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée...
Roses are Red is perhaps the most well-known traditional Valentine verse which can be found in the collection of English nursery ryhmes, Gammer Gurton's Garland (1784):
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.
Though this poem has become quite clichéd, I still rather like the original and its connotations!

Celebrations today

Since Hallmark began mass-producing Valentines cards in 1913, February 14th may be seen as more of a commercial holiday than a date on which true love is celebrated.

In the UK alone, over 25 million cards are sent each year, many of them to family members, while gifts of chocolates, balloons and cuddly toys (perhaps even more elaborate gifts) are seen as commonplace and expected rather than heartfelt.

Still it is wonderful to hear of truly romantic gestures, such as when friends and family members receive Valentines proposals or unexpected gestures prompted by the festivity of the day.

What do you think?

Perhaps I'm a little disillusioned by Valentine's day - do you instead consider February 14th to be the most romantic day of the year?

What has been the most romantic Valentine gesture you have given or received?

Please feel free to leave your own expressions and comments below.

Image credit: seyed mostafa zamani, via Flickr