Saint Valentine's Day is February 14th, Right? March 13 2009

The simplest answer is: yes. The practice of giving valentines on the 14th of February was first popularized in England in the 15th century. It fell in and out of favor over the years, until Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts received a paper lace valentine from England in 1847. Howland developed a business manufacturing and selling valentines in the United States that ultimately grossed $100,000 ($2.1 million today) annually before its sale in 1881.

By the end of the 20th century Valentine’s Day had become popularized in several countries and was considered one of several “Hallmark Holidays” because of its roots in commercial enterprise rather than tradition. Today, Howland’s visionary business sense is recognized by the “Esther Howland Award for an Entrepreneur” awarded annually by the Greeting Card Association since May 2001.

As for the actual Saint Valentine, many vague historical references exist to Saint Valentine of Rome (whose official Saint’s Day was recognized as 14 February until its removal from the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints during the 20th century), but the popularly perpetuated stories are believed to be mostly legend in the academic world.

The first known literary reference to the romantic association of Saint Valentine’s Day is attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, written in the late 14th century. In his poem, Chaucer writes “For this was on Saint Valentines [sic] day / When every brid [sic] cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate]” (Chaucer 1382?). Some literary experts have argued that Chaucer is actually referencing the Saint’s Day of Saint Valentine of Genoa, which occurred on the same day as King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia (2 May 1381); the event which they believe the poem was written to commemorate.  Further credence is lent to this argument by the facts that the scene in Chaucer’s poem is set in May and Chaucer himself was a member of King Richard II’s court. An interesting coincidence, though, is that King Richard II died on 14 February.

Over the following centuries Chaucer’s Saint Valentine’s Day was socially migrated to the Saint’s Day for Saint Valentine of Rome; 14 February. This is likely due to the relative obscurity of Saint Valentine of Genoa, but may also relate to the existence of many corresponding pagan celebrations of fertility and the coming spring that were also observed in February.

As is so for many holidays and celebrations, the true origins of Valentine’s will likely never be known with any degree of certainty, but the socially recognized day of celebration is nevertheless a popular and resilient holiday.

by Dagan Henderson

(Valentine Exhibition-- Origins of the Valentine 2008)
(Delahoyde 2004) & (Delahoyde 2004)

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Parliamant of Fowls. London?, England, 1382?.
Delahoyde, Dr. Michael. "Chaucer: The Parliament of Fowls." Washington State University. September 5, 2004. (accessed February 11, 2008).
Sullivan, Meg. "Henry Ansgar Kelly, Valentine's Day / UCLA Spotlight." UCLA. February 1, 2001. (accessed February 11, 2008).
"Valentine Exhibition-- Origins of the Valentine." American Antiquarian Society. February 11, 2008. (accessed February 11, 2008).