Valentine's Day facts you may not know: from Saint Valentine's identity to the invention of the heart-shaped box

What may have started as a pagan festival is now a billion-dollar holiday

epa09006914 Bouquets of flowers are seen at a flower shop in Madrid, Spain, 12 February 2021, days before Valentine's Day. Although having ancient Christian roots to honor early martyrs the Valentine's Day, which is celebrated all over the world on 14 February, over the centuries has become a commercialized day to express ones romance and dedication to a loved person in many regions of the world.  EPA/J.J. GUILLEN
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Hate it or love it, Valentine’s Day is hard to ignore. As some of us are faced with greeting card choices, scores of hearts, red flowers and chocolates begin to fill supermarket shelves and marketing for romantic dinners start springing up everywhere. But before February 14 became a billion-dollar celebration, how did Valentine's Day begin and was it always about love?

Here are a few facts about Valentine's Day that you might not know.

The exact origins are uncertain

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how Valentine’s Day came to be, though it is often attributed to the Romans. The Feast of Saint Valentine was established by the Pope in 496 AD as a way to honour a Roman saint. It was only in the 1500s and 1600s that various traditions in different countries transformed the occasion into one that focused on courtly love and romance. The tradition of offering gifts and flowers dates from 18th century England.

Another theory traces the day’s origins to Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility festival that involved animal sacrifice. Priests would strike women with the animal hides as a fertility blessing.

There are many Saint Valentines

In ancient Roman times, the name Valentine – or Valentinus in Latin – was very common. So the Feast of Saint Valentine may be honouring more than one Christian martyr who goes by the name, though it is most commonly believed to refer to Saint Valentine of Rome, who ministered to persecuted Christians and was imprisoned as a result. He was said to have fallen in love with the daughter of his jailer, sending her a letter signed “Your Valentine” before his execution. He was buried on February 14.

The rise of printers helped form a tradition

In 18th century England, printing machines produced “mechanical valentines” or cards with verses and sketches, in limited numbers. The popularity of these paper Valentines quickly rose, and the commercial manufacture of even fancier cards, made with embossed designs and lace paper, began in the 1800s.

Around 450 Victorian Valentine cards are currently part of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections, and the centre revealed that 60,000 Valentine cards were sent by post in the United Kingdom in 1835. When postal rates were reduced and the postage stamp was introduced, that number jumped to 400,000 in 1840.

Cadbury may have invented the chocolate heart

The commercialisation of Valentine’s Day is nothing new. While factories were mass-producing cards, the British chocolate company Cadbury invented a game-changing gift in 1868 – Fancy Boxes, a heart-shaped box of chocolates adorned with various designs.

Today, flowers, candies and chocolates are still among the most popular gifts on February 14

By the mid-1900s, gift-giving on Valentine’s Day was not just limited to cards and chocolates, but expanded to jewellry and other items as well. Today, flowers, candy and chocolates are still among the most popular gifts on February 14.

Traditions vary around the world

While the romantic core of Valentine’s Day has generally remained intact around the world, traditions do vary. In Japan and South Korea, women are the ones doing the wooing, giving men gifts and chocolates. A month later, on “White Day” or March 14, men reciprocate the gifts.

In Denmark, the Danes forgo the red roses and opt for snowdrops, white spring flowers, that they give alongside “lover’s cards” or notes on decorated paper with poems or rhymes written on them.

Countries such as Wales and Brazil have their celebrations of love on January 25 and June 12, respectively. The former doesn’t recognise Saint Valentine but the Welsh patron saint of lovers, Saint Dwynwen, instead. In Brazil, February 14 often coincidences with Carnival, so Lover’s Day is marked in June.