Happy Valentine’s Day 2024! Who was St Valentine and why do we celebrate on February 14?

 (Uncle handout)
(Uncle handout)

From naff cards to ostentatious flower bouquets - St Valentine's Day may be cheesy, but there's no doubt many people love it.

The day dedicated to love always falls on February 14, and this year it will be celebrated on a Wednesday.

From its early roots nearly 2,000 years ago, via celebrated poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and including the lacey Valentine’s cards of the Victorian era, it is still heralded as the most romantic day of the year.

But who was the saint the day is named after, and how did it become synonymous with schmaltz?

Here is all you need to know.

 (Shutterstock / Javier Brosch)
(Shutterstock / Javier Brosch)

Who was Saint Valentine?

Over the years, a number of legends and anecdotes have been created around the origins of the day of love.

Firstly, there were a few eponymous Saint Valentines associated with the day. However, the most popular story involved a Catholic priest living in Rome in the third century.

During Valentine’s life, Christianity was incompatible with contemporaneous Roman law. The emperor at the time, Claudius II, was a pagan and created strict legislation against Christianity, including laws against marriage vows.

In more modern times, the story of this Valentine was embellished, and it is said he defied the law and married many soldiers in secret Christian ceremonies, which earned him a reputation as a saint of love.

Sadly, he was eventually captured and jailed for his crimes against Claudius, but legend dictates his good efforts did not stop there. While imprisoned, Valentine cared for many of his fellow prisoners, including his jailor’s blind daughter. Later, stories tell that Valentine even cured the girl’s blindness with his last act before being executed and, in the 18th century, the legend became further embroidered, with the priest said to have signed a final letter to the girl “from your Valentine”.

Valentine was executed on February 14 in the year 270 and this date is commemorated as St Valentine’s Day in various Christian denominations.

It is sadly not a public holiday anywhere but is still celebrated in its traditional sense in orthodox churches.

What did Chaucer have to do with it?

Medieval author Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the first person to associate romantic love with Saint Valentine, although unofficially there may be others whose sources cannot be proven.

In 1382, in the Parliament of Fowls (1382), he mentions that Valentine’s Day was when birds chose their mates.

The earliest association with February 14 as an annual celebration of love appears in the Charter of the Court of Love, allegedly issued by Charles VI of France in 1400, and describes a lavish feast of the royal court.

The word Valentine then became synonymous with describing a person’s lover, with feelings committed to verse on that day. This led to the creation of mass-produced paper Valentine’s cards by the 19th century, with Valentine’s as we know it being born.

What are typical Valentine’s Day traditions in the UK?

Mid-February is second only to Christmas for conceptions (PA Archive / PA Images)
Mid-February is second only to Christmas for conceptions (PA Archive / PA Images)

Cards, flowers, chocolates, romantic mini-breaks, meals for two - you name it, any romantic stereotype you can think of is popular on Valentine's Day - think teddy bears with saccharine love messages or anything heart-shaped.

Valentine's Day cards have traditionally been sent anonymously, with it being seen as unlucky to sign your name.

Meanwhile, many couples either cook for each other or go for a romantic meal, while gifts for a partner range from hastily grabbed chocolates and roses from the local service station or supermarket, to perfume, shoes, and lingerie, and carefully planned surprises.