Christmas and Valentine’s Day have a lot more in common than you may realize. Yes, they are both winter holidays that involve gift-giving, red as a prominent color, and a whole lot of love. But did you know their similarities go much deeper than that?
Take a deep dive with the Elf Squad to learn the origins of Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and why these holidays are so closely related.
1. Ancient Roman Origins
Like many global holidays, Christmas and Valentine’s Day have pagan roots going back thousands of years. More specifically, however, these two can trace their origins back to Ancient Rome. Needless to say, they had a very different way of celebrating back then.
The winter solstice kicked off with a multi-day festival called Saturnalia, honoring the Roman god of time, Saturn. While it initially went on from December 17th to the 23rd, it later shifted to include the 25th. Pigs were sacrificed at the god’s temple, while citizens lit candles, decorated with greenery, and wore their best togas. The days included large banquets, continuous parties, and the exchanging of gag gifts. It was also a day to do away with social norms, as gambling was allowed, schools and courts of law were closed, and masters would wait on their slaves. Another common custom was to elect a ‘King of Saturnalia’ to preside over the merrymaking.
Then, on February 15th, the Romans held another big celebration called Lupercalia. While we don’t know its exact origin, it’s believed to honor the she-wolf that rescued and adopted Romulus — the founder of Rome — and his twin brother Remus. It was a day to purify the city and to promote good health and fertility to all Romans. Priests again sacrificed animals at the altar, anointed themselves with blood, then ran naked and whipped nearby women with strips of animal skin. Men would choose women randomly for company throughout the festival, and many of these couples later married.
2. Two Mysterious Saints
We’ve heard of Saint Nicholas and Saint Valentine all our lives, to the point that they’ve become legendary. Yet even the Catholic Church doesn’t know much about who these men were in real life. What little we know, however, makes them the perfect fit for their signature holidays.
The real Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop from the West Asian city of Myra, located in modern-day Turkey. Many records of him were lost. He was born to a wealthy Christian family and used his inheritance to aid those in need. He especially loved children and showed great concern toward sailors and their ships. He also gave secret gifts to the poor regularly. On three separate occasions, he tossed a bag of gold into a father’s shoe as it hung by the fire to dry. Though it’s unclear when or how he died, it’s believed that Nicholas lived into his early 70s.
As for Saint Valentine, he was a third-century Roman priest who secretly married soldiers to their lovers. Since these men were banned from having wives and families, he knew he was risking his life. Valentine also preached the Christian faith to these couples and encouraged strict monogamous unions. Eventually, he was caught, arrested, and tortured before being executed on February 14th. According to one legend, he left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, whom he’d befriended, and signed it ‘From Your Valentine.’
3. Modernized by Literature
There’s something inherently romantic about celebrating thousand-plus-year-old holidays. But for the holidays to stay relevant for so many years, sometimes new traditions must take the place of old ones. Fortunately, Christmas and Valentine’s Day can credit literature with bringing them into the modern world. In fact, these novels, poems, and plays are still cultural staples to this day.
Arguably the most famous Christmas poem is, ‘A Visit From Saint Nicholas,’ now known as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.’ It was first published anonymously in upstate New York’s ‘Troy Sentinel’ in 1823 and is credited with shaping America’s version of Santa Clause. Though Clement Clarke Moore later claimed authorship, there’s still some debate over who actually wrote this piece.
Twenty years later, British author Charles Dickens published his most iconic work ever — ‘A Christmas Carol.’ During this time, Great Britain was reevaluating many long-standing Christmas traditions. This story helped to revitalize the holiday for Victorian times and beyond, inspiring many new customs such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, and the spirit of generosity.
English poet Geoffrey Chaucer brought Valentine’s Day to the forefront during the 14th century. His most famous work, ‘The Parlement of Foules,’ describes a group of birds gathering in the spring to choose their mates, calling Valentine’s Day a ‘special day for lovers.’ Another poem named ‘The Complaint of Mars’ was first read on this day in 1400. Though some see it as an allegory for the two planets, it also describes the cursed love between two of Rome’s most prominent gods. More than a century later, Shakespeare added on by referencing this day in some of his plays, most notably in ‘Hamlet’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’
4. Central Mythical Figures
Both holidays have their own mythical figure — Santa Claus for Christmas and Cupid for Valentine’s Day. And while neither was associated with these days in the beginning, changing traditions and card companies made it all happen.
Santa Claus was created in 16th-century England, inspired by the real-life Santa Nicholas of Myra. Though saints became unpopular after the Protestant Revolution, his love of gift-giving stood the test of time. So they imagined a new figure in his likeness and called him ‘Father Christmas’ or ‘Saint Christmas.’ This legend quickly made its way across Northern Europe, where he was called ‘Sinterklaas,’ and down to the Mediterranean. Then after Dutch settlers reached America during the 17th century, ‘Sinterklaas’ later became ‘Santa Claus.’
As for Cupid, he’s the Roman god of desire and the son of Venus and Mars. He’s also the equal of the Greek god Eros, a slender, winged teen armed with a bow and arrow. The Romans, however, portrayed their Cupid as a cute and chubby little boy, though his wings and bow still remained. This version resonated so much with European artists that they used it in numerous Renaissance paintings. When 19th-century card companies printed these images on their products, he became the central Valentine’s Day figure we know and love.
Speaking of cards…
5. Mass-Produced Greeting Cards
Whenever these two holidays come around, you know you can expect lots of greeting cards everywhere you go. From silly to sentimental, people all over the world love sharing good wishes with each other every season.
Christmas cards first appeared during the 1840s, though few bought them since they were so expensive. That changed in 1875 when German-born printer Louis Prang began mass-producing them. Some even customize their own with memorable photographs and hand-tied ribbons. And after Hallmark Cards was founded in 1910, everyone had easy access to holiday greeting cards. Though even today, millions of people still love to create personalized cards, complete with themed outfits and very patient pets.
While giving small tokens on Valentine’s Day was common, cards weren’t a thing until the 18th century. They were handmade and hand-delivered in secret, with images of flowers, cupids, and doves. Some would even buy printed verses for their cards when they weren’t sure what to write. In 1849, artist Esther Howland worked with her father’s stationary business to create mass-produced Valentines for lovers across the United States. And over 60 years later, Hallmark Cards sold its first-ever Valentine’s Day card and never looked back.
6. Gifting Chocolates and Candies
And finally, neither Christmas nor Valentine’s Day would be complete without lots of candy. They make the perfect small gift and are so much fun to decorate with. And just like card companies, candy manufacturers gear up for billions in sales every February and December.
Though candy canes are still the most iconic, Christmas is chock-full of seasonal delights. Brands from M&Ms to Ghirardelli have special releases such as peppermint flavors and chocolate Santas. People use candies to decorate trees, fill stockings, and build gingerbread houses. Families make fudge and peppermint bark to serve at parties or give to loved ones. And chocolate advent calendars give kids something to look forward to each day until December 25th.
And we all know it just isn't Valentine’s Day without all those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. They’re perfect for letting a loved one know you’re thinking of them and come in so many varieties. But if that’s not your preference, you can also choose chocolate roses, lollipops, gummies, or a box of conversation hearts. Yet no matter what you like or whether or not you celebrate, getting candy as a gift always makes this day so much sweeter.
From pagan origins and prominent saints to literature and greeting cards, these two special days might as well be twins. That may be why more Valentine Decorations are being sold each year that closely resemble Christmas Decor. So, put up some red holiday lights and add some pink hearts to your “Christmas Tree” to celebrate the season of love!
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