Valentine’s Day is almost here, with heart-adorned cards, bumper boxes of chocolate, bouquets of red roses and teddy bears wearing T-shirts emblazoned with cutesy messages starting to appear in shops across the country.
Now heavily commercialised and laden with expectation, the annual event was once a day where people earnestly showed their love and affection for another person.
The oldest surviving Valentine’s poem was written by a prison-entrapped, pining lover: Charles, Duke of Orleans wrote it for his wife in 1415, confined in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt.
However Valentine’s Day was celebrated for centuries before that. From who the saint was to the best romantic gift ideas, here is everything you need to know about Valentine’s Day.
When is Valentine’s Day?
The event falls on the same day each year. February 14 of course – which this year is a Thursday. Couples across the globe typically recognise the annual celebration by exchanging gifts, flowers and cards, although it it isn’t a public holiday in every country.
While Valentine’s Day is now heavily commercialised, the church originally decided to make the day a Christian celebration to honour St Valentine.
The feast of St Valentine of February 14 was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among all those “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”
Who was St Valentine?
While the details of who St Valentine was are contested, one thing is agreed upon: he was martyred and buried on February 14 at the Roman cemetery on the Via Flaminia, the ancient road from Rome to Rimini.
However the details we have of St Valentine could be of one saint or two conflated saints with the same name; this means there are many different biographies in circulation.
The most popular legend is that St Valentine – a priest from Rome – was arrested after secretly marrying Christian couples, who were being persecuted by Emperor Claudius II in the third century AD.
As helping Christians was considered a crime, St Valentine was imprisoned; while in jail he attempted to convert the emperor to Christianity and was condemned to death. He was beaten with stones and clubs, before being beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate.
According to some, while in prison St Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her a love letter signed ‘from your Valentine’ on February 14, the day of his execution, as a goodbye.
Wearing a coronet made from flowers and with a stencilled inscription, St Valentine’s skull now resides in the Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, on Rome’s Piazza Bocca della Verità.
A casket containing a number of St Valentine’s bones and a vial of his blood have been stored in the Whitefriar Street Church, in Dublin, since 1936, and couples regularly visit the religious shrine to ask him to watch over their lives.
Many couples preparing to marry also head to this church on
February 14, the feast day of the saint, for a Blessing of the Rings in the presence of the reliquary.
What’s Cupid got to do with it all?
Cupid is the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection. He is often portrayed as the son of the love goddess Venus and the war god Mars.
Cupid is also known in Latin as Amor (“Love”). His Greek counterpart is Eros and he is just one of the ancient symbols associated with St Valentine’s Day, along with the shape of a heart, doves, and the colours red and pink.
He is usually portrayed as a small winged figure with a bow and arrow which he uses to strike the hearts of people. People who fall in love are said to be ‘struck by Cupid’s arrow’.
Why is the heart associated with love?
The heart was once associated with knowledge as well as feelings: Egyptians believed that the heart was the source of our memories, as well as our emotions. They placed so much value on the organ that they left it in people’s bodies during mummification, while throwing all other organs, including the brain, away. And they weren’t the only ones – Aristotle also believed that the heart was an organ of intellect.
This idea was widely accepted until Galen, a Roman physician, said the heart was more likely to be responsible for emotions than reason – apart from love, which was found in the liver.
As the influence of Christianity grew in the Middle Ages, so did the religion’s pairing of the heart with love. ‘Courtly love’, where knights wooed women, became popular in the eleventh century and was tied to spiritual attainment.
It became popularised in lyric poems written by troubadours, such as William of Aquitaine, one of the first troubadour poets. Some say he was likely influenced by similar views on love in the Islamic world, which he came into contact with during the First Crusade.
In 1184, poet Andreas Capallenus referred to the organ as one of affection, writing ‘the pure love which binds together the hearts of two lovers with every feeling of delight’.
Around the same time, members of European families began to insist their hearts were buried separately from the rest of their bodies, in places that were special to them. In 1199 King Richard I of England had his heart buried in Rouen in Normandy and his body in Anjou, where his father was buried.
Over the centuries, the idea that the heart is linked to emotion has persisted and the two are now intrinsically linked.
When did Valentine’s Day become so commercial?
It was during the middle of the 18th century that Valentine’s Day started to take off in England, with lovers sending sweets and cards adorned with flowers, ribbons and images of cupids and birds.
Eventually huge numbers of printed cards replaced hand-written ones. In 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City began mass producing Valentine’s Day cards.
Now about a billion Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged every year and it’s the second largest seasonal card sending time of the year.
However, not all the cards are intended to be read: every year, thousands of letters addressed to Juliet are sent to Verona, where Shakespeare’s fictional Romeo and Juliet lived.
What to write in a Valentine’s Day card
What message will you be writing to your loved one this Valentine’s Day?
If you’re thinking of just putting “Happy Valentine’s Day” and leaving it there – well, that’s fine. Not all of us can be poets. But if you wanted to go for something a bit more elaborate, why not take inspiration from some of the greatest love letters ever written?
Plus, if you want to quote the modern greats, look no further than Telegraph Culture’s collection of the best love poems ever written.
Why do some people leave anonymous cards?
This trend was started by the Victorians, who thought it was bad luck to sign Valentine’s cards with their names.
The Victorians also started the rose-giving trend. They were the favourite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and have come to indicate passion and romance.
Nowadays, more than 50 million roses are given for Valentine’s Day every year. There will of course be some people who do not receive any cards, flowers or gifts on Valentine’s Day. In 2016, one teenager solved that problem by buying 900 carnations and giving them to out to all the girls at his school.
The best Valentine’s foodie gift ideas
Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to mean buying out-of-season strawberries or boring boxes of chocolates – nowadays, there are more creative food gifts to show the love. From choux-art to cookery classes, here is how to woo the ravenous and romantic in style.
Daylesford cookery school is offering an all-day class for couples on February 14, accompanied by a glass or two of wine from their sister estate in Provence, Chateau Leoube. Meanwhile, at Waitrose cookery school in London’s Finchley Road you can learn how to make Valentine’s cherry chocolate macarons.
Consider all things choux. Maitre choux patisserie’s signature bake for 2019 is the ‘Red Love’: a delightful macaron eclair filled with Tahitian vanilla cream and a delicious raspberry purée. £5.80 frommaitrechoux.com
For people who want to stay in
Being crammed into a dining room full of other couples is out. Posh food at home is in. La Belle Assiette, with 200 chefs on its roster, will organise someone to come to your home and whip up the ultimate romantic meal. The chefs offer everything from quality Italian to Japanese to Michelin. It’s basically an upmarket Deliveroo, so expect to pay more dough than your average takeaway, but it can be less than eating out. www.labelleassiette.com
For the perfect romantic date
The Ritz London is holding a range of afternoon tea sittings on Valentine’s Day this year, with 18 loose-leaf teas to choose from and a selection of finger sandwiches, scones and pastries to devour, completed with a delightful glass of rosé champagne.
The best romantic drinks
Kay Plunkett-Hogge suggests a cocktail or three to get you in the Valentine’s Day mood – or to get you through it, depending on your romantic state of mind…
How to woo your love interest on Valentine’s Day
On Valentine’s Day, sometimes a bunch of flowers won’t do – you need a grand romantic gesture, writes Helen O’Hara. For inspiration, here are some of the best ever captured on film:
His Girl Friday (1940) – The plan-within-a-plan
A real contender for the title of greatest rom-com ever, and certainly the quickest witted, the climax here sees star reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) realise that her editor and ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) has engineered their quest for a scoop so that it also sabotages her plans to marry again. Instead of raging at such temerity, she falls gratefully into his arms. It’s a beautifully executed little twist, making it clear that the pair are in cahoots even when they’re apparently working against each other.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999) – The Shakespearean-ish sonnet
Heath Ledger’s grandstanding performance of I Love You Baby gets mentioned a lot in relation to romantic gestures in this film – but that’s a lark that’s relatively easy to laugh off. In terms of putting yourself out there for your other half, Julia Stiles’ Kat takes the bigger risks. First, she flashes a teacher to give Ledger’s Patrick the
chance to escape detention. Then she reads a sonnet, no less, revealing her feelings for him to her entire class. The guts required are almost unthinkable.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) – The library
Belle (Paige O’Hara) isn’t particularly materialistic in this Oscar-nominated animation, but she’s as susceptible as the next bookworm to the gift of an entire, enormous library. This one comes with a convenient sofa by the fire and sweeping baroque staircases to shelves that stretch about 200ft. in the air. The fact that the Beast (Robbie Benson) – previously bad-tempered and hostile – presents his revelation with a charming degree of shyness and hope just makes it all the sweeter. He was originally cursed for his selfishness, so the thought counts all the more here.
The celebration of love around the world
While Britons tend to think of red roses, corny cards and chocolates when it comes to Valentine’s Day, some countries around the world celebrate love differently and have their own traditions.
In Denmark, couples exchange pressed white flowers called snowdrops while in the Philippines, weddings and vow renewal ceremonies significantly increase on the romantic day, with couples gathering at shopping centres and other public places to tie the knot.
In South Africa, women wear their hearts on their sleeves on Valentine’s Day, quite literally, by pinning the names of their love interests to their shirts.
China celebrate its own version of Valentine’s Day called Qiki, during which young women prepare offerings of fruit to Zhinu, a heavenly king’s daughter, in the hope of finding their perfect match.
In Brazil, they celebrate Dia dos Namorados, translating as “Lovers’ Day”, on June 12, with music festivals and performances, while in Argentina, they celebrate love for an entire week during July, in what is called “Sweetness Week”.
Single on Valentine’s Day and looking for love?
If you’re single and looking for love, look no further than online dating. Any stigma which may have surrounded searching for love online has been banished, and meeting for a mid-week Tinder date is no longer something people feel they have to lie about.
But given how much choice is out there, how can you separate the wheat from the chaff? We’ve selected the top 20 dating apps to help you find your perfect match.