What’s the story behind Valentine tradition?

Why do we gift loved ones chocolates and flowers, write romantic verses, and sign off cards with ‘xxx’? MARY ROSE MCCARTHY looks at the origins of some Valentine’s Day traditions
What’s the story behind Valentine tradition?

Note writing and card giving were very common in the 18th century. With the advent of printed cards and cheaper postage rates the custom of giving cards became commonplace.


One legend is that St.Valentine was beheaded for marrying men against the wishes of Roman Emperor Claudius II who believed single men made better soldiers. In prison awaiting execution, the martyr fell in love with one of the judges’ blind daughter and restored her sight. Before his fate befell him, he wrote her a letter and signed if ‘From your Valentine.’ And so each February 14 we shower our own Valentines with gifts of flowers, chocolate, love, romance, and cards.


Most boxes of chocolates will have ribbon, or lace, or both wrapped around them for this day of romance. The tradition dates back to medieval times when knights rode to battle wearing a ribbon given by a lover or sweetheart. The word lace comes from the Latin ‘lacques’ which means to capture or ensnare.. someone’s heart.


Chocolate was expensive and so considered a treat. Then the brothers Cadbury took over the chocolate making business and in extracting cocoa butter from cocoa beans discovered they had more than required and added it to ‘eating chocolate’.

From there packaging and presenting a box of ‘eating chocolates’ was a small leap of imagination.

Richard Cadbury is thought to have made the first heart shaped box for chocolates but did not patent it.


In the Victorian era, people expressed their emotions through flowers. In fact, flowers have a language all their own with different blooms representing different feelings.

Red roses meant romance and that is the message they still convey today. Growers control the temperatures blooms are stored in so that this normally summertime flower is ready to open for Valentine’s Day.


Note writing and card giving were very common in the 18th century. With the advent of printed cards and cheaper postage rates the custom of giving cards became commonplace.

The custom was not reserved for lovers, people gave them to their children, and friends. In this century people, also give them to their pets.


When Charles, Duke of Orleans, was under arrest at the Tower of London following the battle of Agincourt in 1445 he wrote two lines of poetry to his wife. This is the first surviving Valentine’s verse. The ubiquitous and now cliché that is the Valentine’s Day poem can be found in the collection of English nursery rhymes Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784):

The rose is red, the violet’s blue, The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

Thou art my love and I am thine; I drew thee to my Valentine:

The lot was cast and then I drew, And Fortune said it shou’d be you.”


In Greek mythology, Cupid was once known as Eros the god of love. He had two arrows, one gold to make people love each other, the other lead to make them hate each other.

Then the Romans adopted the myth and claimed Cupid was the son of Venus the god of love.

In Renaissance times, artists depicted Cupid as a cherub and that depiction remains to this day.


Doves are also used to represent peace. In Greek mythology they were the sacred bird of the love goddess Aphrodite. Apparently, she liked them as the birds are monogamous and mate with just the one bird during the mating season. The male takes care of the female, and stays around after the birth of the young helping to care for them.


X has been used as symbol of a kiss since medieval times. Those who couldn’t write signed their seal with an x. The similarity with x and the cross of Christ crucified, meant once they wrote the x they then kissed it as display of piety. No one is sure where the o to represent a hug comes from other than it too is easy to write alongside the x.


February 14 is associated with the start of the spring mating season for birds, which helps strengthen the association with love and romance. There is 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 behaviour.

Fourteenth-century author Geoffrey Chaucer first made the connection with birds and the mating season in a poem: “on St. Valentine’s Day … every bird cometh … to choose his mate”.


Red has always been associated with strong feelings of passion and sexuality. According to a study by the US University of Rochester, science now backs this up. The study found that men find women wearing red or standing in front of the colour red more attractive and desirable then when standing in front of other colours or wearing other colours. And, it seems, women felt the same way about men wearing red.

Of course, the colour is also associated with confidence and spontaneity – useful characteristics in the pursuit of a romantic partner.

Traditions or no traditions, hate or love the day, spring and new beginnings are in the air at this time of year. After a long dreary January, frivolity beckons in February. Have some fun and enjoy the day your way.

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