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The Not-So-Romantic History of Valentine’s Day

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Exeter chapter.

The origin of Valentine’s Day has always been something that has intrigued me. Whether you are celebrating with a loved one, friends or not at all, I am sure you will be surprised that it doesn’t start with Cupid, chocolate or red roses!  

Generally speaking, the history of Valentine’s Day appears mysterious and mostly unknown. It is frequently acknowledged that the earliest origins of this day of love developed from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia which was held yearly in mid-February. The festival was dedicated to the Roman god Fauns who was the god of wild nature and fertility. It is believed that the festival celebrated the arrival of Spring in addition to holding fertility rites and possibly even paired off single women to men by a sort of lottery.  

As a development from the festival of Lupercalia, it appears that Pope Gelasius, from the 5th Century, replaced the Roman festival with a more Christian version, naming the day after a Christian martyr called St. Valentine. However, there were several Christian martyrs named Valentines and nobody knows which St. Valentine the day is named after; none of the Saints stories are very romantic – they were all martyrs after all…  

During the 1300s the first poem which recorded Valentine’s day as a day of love was written by Geoffrey Chaucer and titled ‘Parliament of Foules’. The poem focuses on the desire of birds to find a partner on Valentine’s Day. It was a commonly held belief in the Middle Ages in France and England that the 14th February noted the beginning of the mating season for birds. This is also why so many cards today still show birds on Valentine’s Day cards: they are a symbol of natural love.  

Cupid is also frequently seen on cards since he is another symbol of love, being the Roman god of Love, son of Venus the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite. Cupid is commonly depicted holding a bow and arrow because he would shoot at both mortals and gods to make them fall in love with his golden arrows (or out of love with lead arrows.)  

Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels

Today there are many traditions associated with Valentine’s Day. Many send cards to their loved ones, including friends and family members, and not just partners. Valentine’s Day is no longer just reserved for a lover, but for everyone you love. The increasingly popular Galantines Day is quite literally a celebration of female friendship, commonly celebrated the day before Valentine’s Day, on the 13th February.  

The giving of chocolate is also incredibly popular on Valentine’s Day, and rightly so – who doesn’t love chocolate?! But why chocolate and not other sweet foods? Well, the Aztecs who invented the delicious treat believed that chocolate was an aphrodisiac and it is said to heighten our desires through the endorphins it produces. While today many don’t think of chocolate as an aphrodisiac, it still symbolises a luxury and shows thought from the gift-giver, making it still a very popular and kind gift to receive on Valentine’s Day.  

Box of chocolates
Via Jill Wellington on Pixabay

Red roses are another popular gift to give on Valentine’s Day. It is commonly acknowledged that the colour red is the colour of passionate love and the rose is synonymous with the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. According to Anacreon (a Greek lyric poet) when Aphrodite was born, bushes of white roses sprung up around her, symbolising purity. It was later said the rose tuned red during the myth of Aphrodite and her lover, Adonis when she scratched herself on the thorns as she tried to save Adonis. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it to him in time and her tears mixed with the blood to turn the petals red.   

Red Roses Heart Cookie
Jocelyn Hsu / Spoon
Of course, the symbol of the heart is the one most seen when celebrating Valentine’s Day. The heart is of course a common association with the emotion of love. Everything that love seems to affect, links back to the heart. It is where we feel our purest emotions and is the symbol of romance.  

So, no matter how you are celebrating Valentine’s Day this year, whether it is with a loved one or with all your friends have a wonderful time and I hope that Cupid fills your day with love!  

Sophie is in her final year at the University of Exeter. She is the President, Editor in Chief, Social Secretary and Campus Correspondent for the Exeter Chapter of Her Campus (2021 - 2023). Sophie would love to work in the media, specifically marketing, when she graduates because of her love for reading and editing... in fact as you read this she is probably wishing that she was lying by a pool with a good book and an iced coffee!