Why we celebrate it on February 14
February 14 is the feast of St. Valentine, a Catholic saint who was executed by Roman Emperor Claudius II on that date sometime during the third century A.D. Many legends surround the reason for his death sentence. The most popular one says he was a priest who married young couples after Claudius outlawed marriage for young men (apparently they were better soldiers when they weren’t romantically attached). Another says he helped save Catholics who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. However, the holiday may have been promoted to overshadow the pagan festival Lupercalia. Between February 13 and 15, Romans celebrated by sacrificing a goat and a dog and whipping women with their hides. Crude as it may seem, people believed this made women more fertile, and women actually lined up to get slapped with bloody hides. In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I outlawed Lupercalia and officially declared February 14 Valentine’s Day. These other Valentine's traditions from around the world are much less gruesome.
Why we call people “Valentines”
Don’t worry, there’s a good reason we call our sweethearts the name of a beheaded priest. Legend has it that when St. Valentine was in prison, he prayed with the daughter of one of his judges and cured her blindness. Before his execution, he wrote her a letter, signing it “From your Valentine.” Whether or not this was a romantic gesture is up for debate. Nevertheless, the signature caught on and is still used to show affection.
Why we draw hearts the way we do
If we were anatomically correct when we drew hearts, the result would be a complex clump of valves and muscles. While the shape we’re more familiar with is a lot easier to draw, no one really knows the origin of the heart shape. One possibility is that it resembles the now-extinct plant silphium. Once found in the African city-state Cyrene, the plant was used as food coloring, a cough syrup, and most notably, a contraceptive. The shape’s association with sex eventually turned into one of love. The other suggestion is actually anatomical in nature. Some have thought the shape to be a representation of breasts, buttocks, sexual organs, or an inaccurate depiction of a real heart. Here's what we do know about the origin of the shape.
Why we give out roses
Back in the Victorian era, people expressed their emotions through floriography, or the language of flowers. Giving a certain kind of flower conveyed a specific message, and red roses meant romance. Today, they carry that same symbol of romance—and they’re really cheap. The U.S. buys huge quantities from large farms in Colombia and Ecuador, where the cost of labor is low. Then they’re transported on refrigerated planes and arrive stateside in just three or four days. The reason these summer flowers bloom in February? Growers control what temperature they’re stored at to make them open in time for Valentine’s Day. Here's what different rose colors mean.
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Why we wear red
Red has long been considered the color of passion and sexuality, and science can now confirm it. A study by University of Rochester psychologists found that men viewed women wearing red or standing in front of a red background as significantly more attractive and sexually desirable than women wearing or standing in front of different colors. Women felt the same way about men wearing red. The color also symbolizes confidence, spontaneity, and determination—all important factors in a romantic pursuit. Here are some surprising scientific reasons for sexual attraction.
Why we eat chocolate
If you get a box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day, thank Richard Cadbury. After he and his brother took over his family’s chocolate manufacturing business, he discovered a way to extract pure cocoa butter from whole beans and added it to the company’s chocolate drink. The process produced more cocoa butter than expected, so he put it in “eating chocolate” as well. Then, in a business ploy that would change the industry, Cadbury started designing beautiful boxes for his new chocolates, including special Valentine’s Day ones with cupids and roses. It’s believed that he made the first heart-shaped candy box, even though he didn’t patent it.
Why we send cards
In the middle of the 18th century, giving out handwritten notes and other signs of affection was a common Valentine’s Day custom in England. As printing technology improved, handwritten messages soon gave way to ready-made cards. They were easy to fill out while still feeling sincere, and low postage rates made them cheap to send. The practice reached America in the 1840s when Esther Howland, a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, decided she could make cards as pretty as the British ones. She started the New England Valentine Co. and made $100,000 in annual revenues, earning the title “Mother of the American Valentine.” Now, approximately 114 million cards are sent out each Valentine’s Day. This is what your Valentine card choice says about you.
Why Cupid is a symbol of love
Before he was called Cupid, the Greeks called this heavenly figure Eros, the god of love. He was considered somewhat of a sex symbol since he could woo humans and gods with his unnaturally good looks. According to Greek mythology, Cupid had two arrows, gold to make people fall in love and lead to make people hate each other. The Romans added him to their mythology as Cupid, the son of Venus, who was the goddess of love. During the Renaissance, artists painted Cupid as a putto, a cherub that resembled a naked child. Unfortunately for Cupid, that depiction stuck and went on to become a popular image for Valentine's Day.
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Why we eat candy hearts
Love 'em or hate 'em, you're guaranteed to see these pastel-colored treats everywhere in the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day. Candy hearts date back to the days of the American Civil War, when their predecessors, candies called "cockles," were popular. Similar to fortune cookies, these treats were shaped like scallop shells and contained paper messages. Daniel Chase, whose brother Oliver founded the candy company NECCO, came up with the idea of printing catchy sayings right on the candy. In 1866, NECCO started churning out miniature candy hearts, then called "motto hearts." Their sayings have evolved quite a bit through the years; today, the hearts even say things like "Email me" and "Tweet me." Romance at its finest. Can you guess the most popular Valentine's Day candy in your state?
Why doves are a symbol of love
Doves are better known for their association with peace, but there's no shortage of V-Day decor featuring these white birds. Doves' association with love dates back to Greek mythology. Doves were the sacred bird of the love goddess Aphrodite, who favored them because of their monogamous habits. Doves tend to stay with the same mate throughout the whole mating season, and the male doves support and care for the females after the baby doves are born. Learn about other loving animals that mate for life.
Why we use "XOXO" to represent hugs and kisses
X as a symbol for kissing dates back to the Middle Ages. The most common theory states that many medieval folks who couldn't read would sign documents with a X, a symbol representative of Christ because of its similarity to a cross. They would then reverently kiss the X in a show of piety. It's not super clear where the O for "hugs" comes from; one theory is that the O was just along for the ride because it was also very easy to write. Another is that the "XOXO" symbol and the game Tic-Tac-Toe gained popularity at the same time, and thus X and O were already an established duo. Check out these other facts you didn't know about kissing.
Why we call people "lovebirds"
Jack.Q/ShutterstockDoves, of course, are the avian stars of Valentine's Day, but birds, in general, have a strong association with the holiday. Fourteenth-century author Geoffrey Chaucer first made the connection when he wrote in a poem that "on St. Valentine's Day ... every bird cometh ... to choose his mate." February 14 gained notoriety as the start of the spring mating season for birds, which would help solidify the day's association with love and romance. There is even a real type of bird commonly called a "lovebird." The term can refer to a few different species of African parrots, all of which are extremely devoted to their mates. Therefore, we give that nickname to people who mimic that lovey-dovey behavior.
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Why it's different in Japan
Kitigan/ShutterstockIn the United States, men spend twice as much money on Valentine's Day gifts as women do, according to Good Housekeeping. But in Japan, the women are the big spenders, while the men simply receive gifts. In 1936, the chocolate company Morozoff introduced the (formerly) primarily Western holiday to Japan. The holiday caught on—but thanks to a translation goof, it became a slightly different celebration. On February 14, women give chocolate to the men in their lives, both romantic interests and otherwise. Don't worry, though—there's a whole separate day for women to get their chocolate, too. A month later, on March 14, the Japanese celebrate "White Day," when the men reciprocate and give the women gifts (often consisting of white chocolate). No matter where you live, there are plenty of ways to have a meaningful Valentine's Day without breaking the bank.
Why there's so much lace and ribbon involved
Your Design/ShutterstockEven the simplest of Valentine's Day chocolate boxes are likely to be adorned with some kind of ribbon decoration or lace-like design. They're pretty, sure, but the reasons they're so popular for Valentine's Day decorations are far more complicated. Both have strong associations with romance that go way back in history. In the Middle Ages, knights would often ride into battle carrying a ribbon from their sweethearts as good luck. Lace, meanwhile, has a far more literal association with love. The word itself comes from the Latin word lacques, which means "to ensnare" or "capture," as in capture someone's heart.
Why it's not just for couples
O.Guero/ShutterstockYes, lovers get top billing when it comes to celebrating Valentine's Day. But there are plenty of ways to celebrate that don't involve romantic love... and many people celebrate that way, probably more than you think. According to Good Housekeeping, the most common recipients of Valentine's Day cards are actually teachers! This is most likely due to classroom Valentine's celebrations. People also buy lots of cards for their kids and their moms, and a whopping nine million Americans spend money on their pets. (Here's what people give their pets for Valentine's Day, in case you're wondering.) If you love your furry friend, what better day than Valentine's Day to show off your puppy love? And don't worry, there are plenty of other ways to have a great Valentine's Day if you're single.