February 14 is a day people either excitedly look forward to or dread for weeks in advance. Its focus on romantic love can be annoying to anyone not in a relationship, and even happily coupled people may find the expectations stressful. This hasn’t stopped Valentine’s Day from becoming one of the most commercialized and symbol-heavy holidays.
While greeting card companies are the biggest drivers of Valentine’s Day decor today, the holiday stretches back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Here, we’ll explore some of the most common symbols associated with Valentine’s Day to trace the origins of the celebration.
The word valentine is used in a few different ways. You can both be someone’s valentine (object of affection) and send a valentine (a card). Both of these are directly related to the holiday.
Before Valentine’s Day was about love, it was the feast day of St. Valentine — in the original Latin he was named Valentinus — who was allegedly martyred on February 14. That sounds like a simple origin story, but there’s a complication: there are two St. Valentines who could have inspired the holiday. One legend states there was a third century CE priest named Valentinus who is the basis for St. Valentine’s Day. When Roman emperor Claudius II banned marriage — believing married men were less willing to become soldiers — Valentinus continued to hold wedding ceremonies in secret. When he was found out, he was beheaded.
The evolution from Christian feast day into a widely celebrated holiday is unclear. One theory is that Valentine’s Day was meant to replace the pagan holiday of Lupercalia. It is true that the Catholic church often tried to erase pagan traditions by scheduling Christian holidays at the same time, but there isn’t much evidence of the two being connected on purpose. The earliest written reference to Valentine’s Day being a day of love comes from the 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who mentions it in his poem “The Parliament of Fowls.” While this may seem like a clear sign that the holiday was celebrated widely by then, it wasn’t until hundreds of years later that Valentine’s Day as we know it came about.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, sending cards to a loved one on Valentine’s Day became a common custom of courtship in England and France. The fad started to fade by the end of the century, but picked up steam again during the 1920s. Perhaps worthy of note is that Hallmark started in 1910, and their earliest Valentine’s Day cards were sold in 1913. Since then, sending valentines has been an expected yearly tradition.
While certainly not the most common symbol of romantic love, birds have been associated with Valentine’s Day for a long time. As mentioned, the earliest reference to the day was by Geoffrey Chaucer, who linked February 14 with the time of year that birds come out of winter hiding and sing their love songs to each other.
Even beyond the holiday, birds have historically symbolized romantic love (think about what “the birds and the bees” means). The arrival of birds and the start of spring may have been part of the reason February 14 became Valentine’s Day.
The word heart goes back thousands, if not tens of thousands of years, all the way to Proto-Indo-European roots. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s grown to mean more than one thing. The human heart, the heart-shaped symbol and the idea of romantic love are three concepts that are separate, but inextricably linked. How, exactly, that happened is difficult to determine.
The easiest connection to make in the chain is between the human heart and romantic love. Poets as far back as the ancient Greeks would write about the beating of their hearts when they’ve fallen madly for another person. While it may simply be an organ for pushing blood through our veins, the heart is sensitive to our emotions.
How the heart shape got involved with the other two is anyone’s guess. Some say that it can be traced back to the philosopher Aristotle, who described the heart as a symmetrical organ at the center of our body. Others have theorized that the heart shape is based not on the human heart but on the human butt or genitalia, which would certainly link it to romantic love. There’s even a possibility that the heart shape was inspired by the seeds of a plant called silphium, which was used as a contraceptive.
The earliest concrete evidence linking the heart shape with romantic love comes from the 13th century French manuscript Roman de la poire, in which there’s a drawing of a man holding his heart up to a woman he desires. This doesn’t look too much like the modern heart shape, and it would take another few centuries for a heart we would recognize today to start appearing in art, particularly in religious contexts.
Bringing things back to Valentine’s Day, it was this holiday that helped proliferate the heart symbol in pop culture. It’s one thing for it to appear in medieval and religious art, but the valentines sent during the Victorian era are what made it an abiding symbol of romantic love.
Valentine’s Day is about romantic love in particular, rather than any other kind (familial, platonic, etc.). While love and romance overlap, the two concepts are not interchangeable. The word “romance” (or romaunce) didn’t make it into the English language until the 14th century, and when it did it referred not to love but a certain genre of story about knights. That may sound random, but if we look at the evolutions of the word it makes more sense. This 14th century romaunce came from the Old French romanz, which referred to any verse narrative. This in turn came from the Vulgar Latin phrase romanice scribere (“to write in a Romance language”) and ultimately the source is the Latin Romanicus, meaning simply “Roman.”
These early stories known as romances tended to be filled with passion and adventure, and so the word “romance” also became associated with these concepts. It wasn’t until the 17th century that “romance” and “love” were connected with one another. It’s likely not a coincidence that the rise of “romantic” love coincided with the rise of Valentine’s Day. They both arose in Europe around the same time that marrying for love (rather than economic reasons) became more commonplace.
If Valentine’s Day has a mascot, it’s the winged, bow and arrow–wielding baby known as Cupid. Next to the heart, he’s the most common symbol of the holiday. His path from powerful Greek God to lovable cherub was not always an obvious one, though.
Cupid was the Roman name for the Greek God Eros, the god of erotic love. If you’re confused why a tiny baby was chosen, that’s because the original Eros appeared more often as a mischievous young adult who went around making people fall in love with one another. He was also one of the most powerful figures in Greek mythology, whose power could be extremely dangerous. Yet by the time the Romans adopted Eros as Cupid, he had aged down and become a more light-hearted figure, always being punished by his mother Aphrodite for causing trouble. Classics professor Richard Martin has theorized that this is because the adult Eros was frightening, and so new stories — starting around the fourth century BCE — would “constrain” him by having him under his mother’s control. Whatever the reason for the popularity of Young Cupid, his image lived on through the Roman Empire.
The idea of Cupid continued to shape-shift over the centuries. As Christianity became dominant in Europe, Roman gods were mostly discarded, but cherubic Cupid continued appearing in art as a symbol for love, though a less lustful love. His popularity took off again in the art of the Renaissance, which used him among many other symbols from antiquity as allegorical symbols in paintings. Cupid was a fanciful way of representing longing.
When 19th century Valentine’s Day card makers were looking for ideas to decorate their cards, Renaissance Cupids were an obvious choice. Not only was he a well-known symbol of love, his appearance as a naked flying baby was both cute and inoffensive.
Aphrodite was the mother of Eros, and she was also the creator of the rose. In Greek mythology, that is. There are a few different stories explaining its birth in mythology. One is that the thorn of a white flower scratched Aphrodite, and her blood turned it red. Another is that when her mortal lover Adonis died, she wept and from her tears grew a rose. Beyond this one story, roses have been considered the crown jewel of flowers all around the world.
To find the origins of sending roses on Valentine’s Day, we return once again to 18th- and 19th-century England. During that time, the idea of “flower languages” caught on, meaning people would convey various messages using flowers. Different flowers meant different things, with forget-me-nots symbolizing remembrance or white lilies meaning “innocence.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were a few different choices when it came to saying “I love you.” Red carnations, tulips and roses were all given on Valentine’s Day in the Victorian era, but roses won out in the long run. Today, they’re the most popular Valentine’s flower by far.
Bonus: Roses are red…
There are countless phrases related to Valentine’s Day: be mine, I’m yours, I love you, XOXO and other trite sayings that you can find on a candy heart. The true MVP of the holiday, however, might be a poem.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.
If you’re looking for an author to those exact four lines, you’ll have a hard time finding one. The poem is more a form of folk knowledge, passed around and transformed by children and adults over and over and over again.
You can read poets talking about the colors of roses and violets a few times throughout history. The English poet Edmund Spenser referred to a scene in which a woman “bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,” way back in 1590 in his Epic poem The Faerie Queene. A 1784 collection of English nursery rhymes called Gammer Gurton’s Garland has a version close to, but not exactly the same as, the modern version:
The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Why has this poem lived on for hundreds of years? Probably because it’s simple, it’s short and lots of things rhyme with “blue.” Poetry and love have been intertwined forever, and this one has become the ultimate shorthand for “love note,” even if it is cliche.