The History Of Valentine's Day: Why We Celebrate With Gifts, Chocolates, Roses & Cards

Photo: Unsplash: Andrii Podilnyk
The History Of Valentine's Day: Why We Celebrate With Gifts, Chocolates, Roses & Cards
Love, Entertainment And News

We stuff ourselves on Thanksgiving, wear ugly sweaters come Christmas-time, and ring in the New Year with a champagne toast. That's just how it's done.

Similarly, ever since most of us were in pre-kindergarten, getting heart-shaped cards, red or pink flowers and chocolate (preferably from that someone special) have marked our celebrations of Valentine's Day.

While your days spent sorting those little cardboard, Disney princess-themed valentines may be over, there are many traditions we practice every year on February 14.

Yet many of us don't know much about the history of Valentine's Day or the origins of its plentiful symbols — like chocolate, roses, cards and Cupid.

RELATED: 30 Romantic Valentine's Day Gifts And Gift Ideas For The Woman You Love

Like 'em or loathe 'em, knowledge is power.

Here's the history of Valentine's Day origins of popular traditions, symbols and gifts associated with love, St. Valentine, Cupid and Lupercalia.

1. Chocolates were considered precious in Mayan and Aztec cultures

We all know chocolate is an aphrodisiac. It contains an endorphin called phenylethylamine, levels of which in the brain have been linked to falling in love.

Chocolate has been considered precious since the days of the Mayans, who believed it to have spiritual and healing properties, calling it "the food of the gods."

And after conquering the Mayan people, Aztec King Montezuma was reportedly known to drink 50 cups of cocoa a day, and an extra one when he was going to meet a lady friend.

Further, because of its stimulating effects, Aztec women are said to have been forbidden to drink it themselves.

2. King Charles of Sweden popularized roses as symbols of love in the early 1700s

February 14 is like Black Friday for florists, with Valentine's Day ranking as the number one holiday for floral purchases, second only to Christmas and Chanukah in dollars spent.

But why are flowers associated with love?

In the early 1700's, King Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical art known as the language of flowers, or floriography, to Europe from its roots in ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Chinese culture. For the next century or so, most Victorian homes contained floral dictionaries, which listed the symbolic meanings of different flowers people used to convey a wide variety of hidden messages to one another.

As symbols of romantic love, roses became linked with Valentine's Day.

Even more specifically, the colors of roses given to your Valentine can relay these additionally nuanced meanings:

  • White rose: purity, innocence, reverence, a new beginning, a fresh start
  • Red rose: love, I love you
  • Deep, dark crimson rose: mourning
  • Pink rose: grace, happiness, gentleness
  • Yellow rose: joy, friendship, the promise of a new beginning
  • Orange rose: desire and enthusiasm
  • Lavender rose: love at first sight
  • Coral rose: friendship, modesty, sympathy

RELATED: 100 Best Valentine's Day Quotes & Memes About Love To Share With Your Partner On Valentine’s Day

3. Valentine's Day cards are based on pagan traditions and rituals practiced during the feast of Lupercalia

Despite what most of us believe we know, Valentine's Day originally originated, at least in part, from pagan customs involving animal sacrifice and fertility rituals.

As explained on NPR, "From February 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain."

In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I managed to abolish the wild-and-crazy pagan feasts by combining them with their own, more civilized holiday honoring "two men — both named Valentine — [executed] on February 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D."

The Pope allowed one pagan ritual to remain, however — the one where young, unmarried men drew the names of young, unmarried women out of a box at random to be matched ... um ... romantically.

Being the Roman Catholic Church, though, they substituted saints' names for the names of unmarried girls, and instead of mating, the young folks had to emulate the saint whose name they drew.

**Whomp whomp**

As you can imagine, virile Roman males weren't too crazy about this. They established their own custom of sending written greetings of affection, likely the first Valentine's Day cards, to the young ladies of their fancy.

Written "valentines" began appearing en masse after 1400, around the time the printing press was invented.

4. The colors pink, red and white have ties to St. Valentine and the Catholic Church

Pink is connected to St. Valentine — well, to one of the at least three St. Valentine's officially recognized by the Catholic Church — for whom the day is officially named.

A Roman citizen named Valentinus, the future St. Valentine was jailed and sentenced to death after "Roman Emperor Claudius ordered all Romans to worship twelve gods, and told them they couldn’t talk about Jesus or they would be killed," for Valentinus "loved Jesus Christ and could not be quiet about this love."

While imprisoned, the jailer is said to have brought his blind daughter, Julia, to Valentinus for lessons. Over the course of his teachings, Valentinus taught Julia about prayer and belief in God, leading her to pray for — and then actually receive — the ability to see.

Following his execution, Julia is believed to have planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave. For this reason, the almond tree and it's light pink flowers are now considered "a legendary symbol of abiding love and friendship."

Red is a symbol of passion, warmth and the color of the heart. Red roses are therefore associated with "passion and deep love, and they’re reserved for romantic relationships, or those hoping for one."

And hearkening again back to St. Valentine, in the Roman Catholic Church, "white is associated with Jesus Christ, innocence and sacrifice."

RELATED: 5 Valentine's Day Traditions From All Over The World That Will Make Single People Feel Less Alone

5. Cupid

The mischievous winged cherub is the Roman god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection, as well as the son of Venus, the Goddess of Love.

Cupid is derived from the Latin word "cupido" meaning "desire" — which your lover should be bursting with on V-Day after you've bestowed them with the aforementioned gifts.

According to legend, "Cupid shoots magical gold-tipped arrows at gods and humans alike. By piercing their heart with an arrow, he causes individuals to fall deeply in love."

Be wary about that cubby flying baby, though. According to some other legends, "Cupid is known to change his mind a lot. Not only does he carry golden arrows to make someone fall in love, but he also carries another kind of arrow. This other arrow has a blunt lead tip that makes people fall out of love."


There you have it. Now all you cynics know that Valentine's Day wasn't actually invented by card and chocolate companies.

As biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher told NPR, "This isn't a command performance. If people didn't want to buy Hallmark cards, they would not be bought, and Hallmark would go out of business."

We've been celebrating it pretty much the same way for centuries — with cards, chocolates, flowers, presents, and heaps of either love or bitterness, whichever side of the relationship status aisle you're currently on.

RELATED: 30 Romantic Valentine's Day Gifts And Gift Ideas For The Man You Love

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Monica Green is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Good Housekeeping, The Knot, and Bustle, among others.