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The interesting origins of Valentine’s Day

As the busiest day of the year approaches for us here at Arena Flowers, we thought we’d delve into the history of Valentine’s Day and how this romantic day has come to feature so prominently in the calendar for lovelorn couples all around the world. You might be surprised to learn that it all started in Ancient Rome...

Who was St Valentine?

As is often the case with long-standing traditions, there are plenty of myths surrounding the origins of Valentine’s Day - and, as you’d expect, there are some rather fanciful legends put about to explain how we came to set aside 14 February as a day for celebrating romance.

To understand the real origins of Valentine’s Day, we need to remember that the full name of this romantic celebration is actually “St Valentine’s Day” or “the Feast of St Valentine”. That’s right: Valentine (or Valentinus, as he’d have been known back then) was just another Christian saint, and in fact there may actually have been two of them, but they’ve been amalgamated into one.

Written accounts suggest that the figure we commemorate was a clergyman in 3rd-century Rome. He’s said to have helped Christians who were being persecuted by the Romans and, according to some accounts, he even performed Christian wedding ceremonies for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. He became a martyr in 296 AD on - you guessed it - 14 February. According to one (highly romanticised!) tale, he restored the sight of his captor’s daughter, writing her a letter signed “from your Valentine” before he was executed.

How did Valentine’s Day come to be associated with romance?

One 18th century theory goes that Valentine’s Day rose to prominence as an attempt to replace the Roman fertility festival known as Lupercalia, but academics have since dismissed this idea. They point to the fact that 14 February only became associated with romance in the High Middle Ages, courtesy of one Geoffrey Chaucer, at a time when courtly love was de rigueur.

Chaucer’s mention of Valentine’s Day, in his 1382 work Parlement of Foules, fitted with the belief at the time that mid-February was when the birds paired up:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”.

In modern English, this means: “For this was on St Valentine's Day, / When every bird cometh there to choose his mate”. The mention here suggests an established tradition, but in fact this is the first reference to it as such, and it’s thought that the association with romantic love was something Chaucer simply made up. Which, as an author, he had every right to do, of course.

Why do we give flowers on Valentine’s Day?

It wasn’t until the 18th century that people began exchanging cards or “Valentines” on Valentine’s Day - a practice that flourished in the Victorian period when postage became more affordable - along with sending chocolates and, of course, flowers. The custom began in England, but quickly spread and has since grown into the flower-sending frenzy we know today.

It’s little wonder that flowers have become the way to express love on Valentine’s Day, as they’ve long been imbued with special meanings. The red rose, a Valentine’s favourite, is said to symbolise true love, so it couldn’t be more appropriate for sending to a loved one on 14 February. 

But for those who want to go a little ‘off-piste’ with their choice of Valentine’s Day flowers, there are plenty more romantic feelings to express in floral form. White and red roses together, for example, symbolise being ‘united’, while red tulips express undying love and passion. White roses can express romantic sentiments such as wistfulness and purity, while pink carnations symbolise a woman’s love.

If you’re feeling loved up and want to surprise the one you love this Valentine’s Day, take your pick from our selection of romantic Valentine’s bouquets and make this 14 February one they’ll remember.

By John Hackett