Holidays: Valentine Days

Figure 1.--Boys dressed as Cupid used to be popular Valentine Day card. Some mothers would have their sons photographed dresses as Cupid. This image comes from a 1914 photograph.

The Holiday

Ancient festivals

The customs of St. Valentine's Day probably originated from an ancient Roman festival-Lupercalia, which took place on February 15. Lupercalia honoured Juno, the Roman goddess of women and marriage, and Pan, the god of nature.

Christian era

Our modern celebration is named after St. Valentine, a Christian martyr. Several St. Valentines have been venerated on February 14. Valentine was a bishop who was secretly married young couples despite the Emperor Claudius II's edict forbidding marriage. He defied the Emperor and married young couples that the Emperor had forbade. He was eventually arrested Valentine's refusal to renounce Christianity led to his execution on February 14. 269 or 270 AD. While awaiting his fate in prison, it is thought Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius, and miraculously restored her sight. Valentine then signed a farewell message to her - "From Your Valentine."

St. Valentine Day

St. Valentine Day had been celebrated in England and Scotland on February 14 for centuries in honor of the Saint. Young bachelors and maids were assigned a friend by lot as a Valentine for a year. It was a kind of mock betrayal and was marked by the giving of presents. The custom appears to have grown out of the old notion, alluded to by both Chauser and Shakespere that on this day birds choose their mates.


The origins of Cupid are even more ancient. Cupid (Lat. cupido was the Roman name for the Greek God of love (Eros). He was made popular in Rome by the Alexandrian poets and is best know in the tale of Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass, a story by Apuleius (2nd century AD). Cupid is commonly represented in art as carrying a bow and quiver of arrows.

Modern Festival

The observation of the modern St. Valentine Day, however, appear to have little connection with these religious events. Esther A. Howland helped to popularize St. Valentin's Day in America. She began to sell the first mass-produced valentine cards in America during the 1840s. There are today about 1 billion valentine cards sent annully. Interestingly about 85 percent of the cards are purchased by women and girls. Valentine's Day developed as we know it when Christianity spread through Europe. In honour of his sacrifice for love, Valentine was made a saint and Lupercalia was renamed. Festival involved young men offering women they admired, and wished to court, handwritten greetings of affection - a Valentine card!

Boys' Costuming

I know of no special boys' costuming associated with Valentine Day. We have seen boys dressed as Cupids, but this appears more for Valentine Day post cards than actual celebrations. American children used go through the annual ritual of exchanging cards at school. This to kids counting the number of cards received and comparing the totals with each other. Less popular children would be embarassed by receiving few cards. For this reason the custom has been discouraged. Boys do not normally wear ant special clothes for Valentine Day. The holiday is more of an adult holiday than one actually celebrated by children.

Figure 2.--This American post card looks to have been made about 1930 for Valaentines Day.


Popular Velentine Day cards used to picture boys cutely dressed up as Cupid, complete with quiver and arrows. We see an American postcard here where a boy is dressed like a painter in a smock.

Family Photographs

At the turn of the Century through the 1910s some mothers would have their boys photographed dressed as Cupid. I think this was particularly popular in France and England, but it also occurred in America.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: December 27, 1998
Last updated: December 4, 2002