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Today, let’s discuss the history of St Valentine’s Day. How did the holiday transform from a Roman festival to a Christian holiday to an international day of love? Let’s discuss this while learning new vocabulary!

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  • To exchange (v) – the act of giving something to someone and them giving you something else
    • I exchanged gifts with my girlfriend
  • Saint (n) – (St) a person who has received an official honour from the Christian, especially the Roman Catholic, Church for having lived in a good and holy way
    • Saint George is the patron saint of England
  • To convert (v) – to change to a new religion
    • He converted to Catholicism when he got married
  • Festival (n) – a special day or period, usually in memory of a religious event, with its own social activities, food, or ceremonies
    • Holi is a famous festival in India
  • Fertility (n) – the quality of being able to produce young or fruit
    • She began fertility treatment at the clinic three years ago
  • To commercialise (v) – to develop or organize something in order to make as much money as possible
    • Christmas is now a commercialised holiday
  • Affection (n) – a feeling of liking for a person or place
    • He had a deep affection for his aunt

Valentine’s Day

On February 14th millions of people around the world will celebrate Valentine’s Day – a holiday associated with love, romance, and relationships. Couples exchange gifts and cards to express their love and feelings for their partners. Today we understand Valentine’s Day through images of hearts, flowers, Cupids, and chocolates… but has it always been this way?

Like all holidays, the past is not necessarily similar to the present. The origins of Valentine’s Day are unclear – there are various different stories and legends. We don’t have a certain understanding of how the holiday developed into the modern day. In fact, it is not even clear who St Valentine was… there are at least two different saints it could refer to.

Today I’m going to try and introduce some of the stories and history surrounding Valentine’s Day. By the end of this episode, you should have a better understanding of how Valentine’s Day has developed and changed over the past 2000 years!

Who was St Valentine?

I think a good place to start will be with St Valentine. Valentine’s Day is a Christian holiday named after St Valentine. But who was St Valentine?

The honest answer is that we don’t really know. There is no clear answer to who St Valentine was or why he became associated with love. Our records of early Christian saints are not perfect, and this means we can’t be certain about the origin of the stories, legends, and origins of Valentine’s Day.

One of the most famous stories is that Valentine was a Roman priest who performed secret Christian weddings at a time when Christianity was being persecuted in Ancient Rome. He apparently healed a blind girl, was executed for his beliefs on February 14th, and signed his final note before his death “from your Valentine.”

Others suggest that another saint called Valentine, the Bishop of Terni, also performed secret weddings and was executed on February 14th. This Valentine was also said to heal a sick boy and refused to convert to paganism (the old Roman religion). The fact that there are two different possibilities to be the Valentine from Valentine’s Day has puzzled people for years.

Valentine was a common name in ancient Rome and there are hundreds of stories about early Christian saints called Valentine. While the defintion of a “saint” varies between different Christian groups, in broad terms a saint is “someone who has died and been officially recognized and honoured by the Christian church because his or her life was a perfect example of the way Christians should live.”

There are early stories about Valentines being executed on February 14th… but the first written records we have date from about 500 years after the execution would have taken place. This makes it almost impossible to know exactly what happened.

Moreover, the two Valentines I mentioned earlier have suspiciously similar stories. They both were said to be executed on February 14th, healed children, and were imprisoned for their beliefs and actions. Could these two Valentines be the same person? Its very possible. Or perhaps someone got confused and borrowed details about each person.

One thing we do know, however, is that in the early stories about the Valentines and their lives, there is no mention of love. Nothing was written about secret marriages or last minute love letters. All of this was likely a later invention.

To summarise, we don’t exactly know who St Valentine was or if he was connected to love and romance.

The Evolution of Valentine’s Day

Original Valentine’s Day

How did Valentine’s Day start? While some people suggest that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February in honour of the day St Valentine was executed, the origins are probably a little different.

Many Christian holidays (including Christmas and Easter) were placed during certain months or times of the year to replace earlier Roman pagan festivals. If you are converting religion, it is much easier to change religion if you can keep the same holidays (just change the celebration).

In the middle of February, the Romans celebrated a festival called Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and was dedicated to fertility and the founders of Rome. The celebrations of Lupercalia were very different to the modern-day Valentine’s Day.

Roman priests would sacrifice a goat, cut its skin into strips, and then walk through the streets of the city. As they walked, they would slap women and crop fields with the skin… as it was believed that touching the skin would make both women and the crops more fertile. According to legend, the women of Rome would then look for marriage partners!

Lupercalia was eventually banned after Rome became Christian. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius, however, continued the tradition of having a festival in the middle of February by declaring a holiday on the 14th – St Valentine’s Day. However, love and romance were not associated with the day. Valentine’s Day was not a day for couples or to celebrate love until much later.

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How Did Valentine’s Day Become Associated with Love?

Early Valentine’s Day was a Christian feast holiday in the middle of February. Modern Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love, romance, and relationships. How did this happen?

In the year 1375, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a line his poem Parliament of Foules “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day/ When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

This may seem like insignificant line, but it is the first written record of Valentine’s Day being connected with love or romance. It is referencing a belief in England and France that bird’s mating season started on February 14th, and this belief led to an association between love and St Valentine’s Day.

Love was a key feature of medieval poetry and literature. Poets and writers of the period wrote endlessly about love and courtship, and Valentine’s Day was a day they could associate with relationships and feelings.

Other writers followed Chaucer’s lead by connecting St Valentine’s Day to romance. Shakespeare, for example, wrote the lines “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine” in Hamlet.

These authors helped to ensure Valentine’s Day was firmly connected with love by the 14th and 15th centuries. Written Valentine’s messages began appearing in the 1400s – Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote a valentine to his wife in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. And King Henry V hired writers to write valentine notes to his wife.

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How did Modern Valentine’s Day Develop?

By the 1700s, people in the UK were known to exchange Valentine’s gifts and notes on February 14th. The holiday spread through the whole country and all social classes.

Printed cards became available in the 1900s – with cheap postage prices, a card was a convenient way to let someone know how you feel about them!

The industrial revolution powered the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day. Factories could mass produce cards and gifts, and we could send them easily across the world. As the day was featured in more books, TV shows, and movies across the world, it became even more widely celebrated.

One of the biggest proponents of Valentine’s Day was, and is, Hallmark Cards who began marketing and mass-producing valentines in 1913 and have been key to pushing it as a mainstream holiday in the USA.

Today, Valentine’s Day is a highly commercialised holiday.  More than celebrating love, it is about buying expensive jewellery, gifts, and flowers.


Valentine’s Day Symbols  

Hopefully now you understand how Valentine’s Day evolved from a Roman pagan fertility festival to a Christian feast day, to a celebration of love, and finally to the modern commercialised holiday!

But how about the symbols and images of Valentine’s Day? How did these become associated with Valentine’s Day?

For example, the heart is the most iconic symbol of Valentine’s Day representing love and affection. Today this is obvious… but it hasn’t always been. If you really think about it, we know today that love is a feeling that is created in the brain… not the heart. But in the middle ages the heart shape became associated with romantic love, and since then is ubiquitous.

You’ve probably seen images of cupid before – a naked cherub firing arrows of love at people. Cupid is a Roman God who was borrowed by the Roman’s from the Greek god of love Eros. As a god of love, it makes sense he is associated with Valentine’s Day (although he is not a Christian god…).

As I mentioned earlier, love letters have been part of Valentine’s celebrations for hundreds of years. Today, much of the letter writing has been replaced by cards. Red roses are seen as a symbol of passionate love and Chocolate has become another common gift.


Final Thought

Today I’ve tried to explain the history and evolution of Valentine’s Day. From a mysterious saint no one really knows, to a Roman festival of fertility, to the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare, to the modern celebrations of giving chocolates and flowers, Valentine’s Day has changed a lot.

How do you celebrate Valentine’s Day in Your Country?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

4 thoughts on “207. The History of Valentine’s Day! (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hi, Tom! Another great episode. Loved your research and summary. I’m from Venezuela, but living in Uruguay now. In Latin America, in general, is a common commercialized date. I think that, with the pass of the years, the intensity of this holiday, as well, has gone dwindling. How about Japan? I heard that there it’s so important holiday for people in general and women give a special importance of receiving gifts in this date. Isn’t it? Thank you for your work, you’re helping me to improve my English every day. Take care yourself, my friend.

    1. Japan is interesting and almost the opposite of Western countries! On Valentine’s Day, women give men gifts of chocolate. Not only do they give gifts to their partners/love interests, but to any man who plays a significant role in their life. It has become quite controversial in recent years as there is often a lot of pressure on female employees to give every man in their office or department chocolate gifts.

      A month late, there is another “romantic” holiday called White Day in which men are supposed to give gifts back!

      1. Tom, definitely you have another theme for your podcast with this information. It’s very interesting the controversial and the opposite way that Japan deal with these dates. Thanks for reply.

  2. Do you know how I personally remember February 14? The fact that in 2004, in the area where I live (Moscow, Southwestern District), the roof of the Transvaal Park sports and entertainment complex collapsed. February 14, 2004 fell on Saturday, a day off, especially then it became customary to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, which attracted a large number of vacationers to the water park, especially young people. The collapse area was approximately 5 thousand square meters. The dome of the building fell on the zone of water entertainment, not hitting only the pool for adults. As a result of the tragedy, 28 people (including 8 children) died, 12 were seriously injured and 189 received various injuries.

    The investigation lasted about 20 months, as a result of which the chief designer Nodar Kancheli and the head of the Moscow State Non-Departmental Expertise Anatoly Voronin were brought to criminal responsibility. In 2006 they were released. Kancheli was amnestied at his request in honor of the 100th anniversary of the State Duma. On August 30, 2006, criminal prosecution against Voronin was terminated due to the absence of corpus delicti. Representatives of the victims tried to appeal the court’s decision to amnesty Kancheli and Voronin, but the Zamoskvoretsky Court of Moscow upheld the decision of the prosecutor’s office.

    I remember that one of my colleague’s son worked there, and it was only by coincidence that he did not end up there that day, he successfully changed shifts. The building was later restored and renamed. This water park is still open today. It so happened that I had never been to this complex before the collapse, but after that I did. Everything is normal and nothing, except for the chapel built nearby, reminds of the past tragedy.

    And February 14 is the day of the execution of the death sentence for the famous serial killer and pedophile Andrei Chikatilo. On the evening of February 14, 1994, after the trial and the rejection of the petition for clemency, Chikatilo was taken in a UAZ car, accompanied by two armed policemen, to the place of execution of sentences to death and executed by a shot in the back of the head.

    Here is February 14th.

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