Obviously, everyone knows Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day. But did you realize it also happens to be National Organ Donor Day? That’s right, give that special someone your heart twice!
This is but one of many interesting tidbits about Valentine’s Day I’ve discovered in my recent “research,” by which, of course, I mean scrolling Wikipedia on the toilet.
Turns out there’s more to Valentine’s Day than chocolate and disappointment. Here now is everything you always wanted to know about Valentine’s Day.* (* – Except the name of your 7th Grade secret admirer—sorry, that will haunt you forever).
Valentine’s Day, which also goes by Saint Valentine’s Day, the Feast of Saint Valentine or the apt initials “VD,” began as a religious celebration of a third-century Christian saint known for performing weddings. He is also the patron saint of Russell Stover.
After New Year’s Day, it’s the world’s second most celebrated holiday — get roasted, Christmas! — and among its oldest. Associations between Valentine’s Day and romance came via poet Geoffrey Chaucer in early 1400s, a time noted for courtly love poetry (and bubonic plague). By the middle of the 15th century, Valentine’s Day had evolved into an occasion for people to openly express love for each other. Makes sense considering one-third of Europe had just succumbed to the Black Death — lots of repopulating to do.
Interestingly enough, many elements of contemporary Valentine’s Day originated in England, a country noted as much for romance as it is culinary art. In fact, the verse “roses are red, violets are blue,” comes from Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic poem “The Faerie Queene.” Although, I’m sure we’re all familiar with the works of Edmund Spenser.
Paper valentines also originated in England, but of course the United States introduced their mass-production. This year, the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates 200 million will be sent. To put that number in perspective, fewer than 160 million ballots were cast in the 2020 presidential election.
These days, Valentine’s Day has grown into a commercialized holiday on par with Halloween, Mother’s Day and Income Tax Day (I know my little dependents can’t wait to hang up their 401K stockings). Valentines now extend to all manner of gifts, from roses to candy to jewelry to Lexuses—even control top panty hose. No joke: a friend down South recently texted me a photo of a store display advertising “Valentine’s Day Special: Buy 1 Get 1 Free Medi Surgical Stockings.” Nothing says “I Love You” like couples varicose vein treatment.
But Valentine’s Day isn’t all luxury cars and support hosiery. The date is historically associated with carnage, and not just in the context of middle school dating. In 1929, Feb. 14 saw the execution of seven Al Capone gang rivals (an event known as the “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre”) as well as the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, and, in the past decade, multiple acts of terrorism and violence. There’s nothing funny about that. There is, however, something funny about the Canadian Asbestos Strike of 1949, which also took place on Valentine’s Day.
Famous Valentine’s Day birthdays include: demographer and political economist Thomas Malthus (oh, baby!); Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein (ooh la la!) and Teller of Penn and Teller (rrrowr!).
History aside, people mark Valentine’s Day in many different ways. Couples typically go out for expensive meals or travel to romantic destinations, often choosing the occasion to “pop the question,” by which I mean “why do we keep going to such crowded rip-offs for Valentine’s Day year after year after year?”
And of course, Valentine’s Day has also come to be associated with many signs and symbols, few more popular than Cupid, hearts and roses.
Cupid, ancient Roman the god of desire, affection and erotic love is usually depicted nude or diapered, although sometimes wearing pasties if required by local ordinance. In a nutshell, Cupid inspires romance by shooting his special arrow — nothing suggestive about that. Cupid is the son of Venus and Mars, making him equal parts love and war. Nothing suggestive about that, either.
The heart has long represented human emotion. Indeed, the heart symbol first appeared on playing cards in the 15th century. However, scholars dispute what the shape actually represents, as it only bears vague anatomical resemblance to the real human heart. Various other body parts — male and female alike — have been suggested as possibilities for the original symbolism, and they all make convincing arguments. Of course, that doesn’t mean you want to think about those body parts when you’re eating Lucky Charms, either.
Ancient symbols of love and beauty dating back to ancient Greece, roses are by far the most common flowers given on Valentine’s Day. Although, if you really wanted to express your love by way of horticulture, you’d give that special someone a cactus.
Think about it. Roses die in a matter of days. No matter what you do, it’s nearly impossible to kill a cactus.
• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears twice monthly in Neighbors.