Whether it’s selecting paper valentines for a child’s class or spending the evening with someone special, Valentine’s Day is a celebratory day for many. For weeks before, shelves of stores are decorated in red, white, and pink. But why were these three colors selected as the colors symbolizing Valentine’s Day? Here, we’ll dig into the roots of the colors entwined with the holiday of love.
A Brief History of Valentine’s Day
Before we jump into the colors we commonly associate with Valentine’s Day, it’s important to understand the origins of this holiday. Perhaps surprisingly, Valentine’s Day dates back to ancient Rome. The ancient festival of Lupercalia was meant to celebrate and encourage fertility, but it was a far cry from how many of us celebrate Valentine’s Day today.
Lupercalia began with animal sacrifices. After the animals (usually goats) were killed, their blood was smeared on the foreheads of the priests (called Luperci) who were present. Afterwards, the blood was wiped from their foreheads with wool soaked in milk. The skin of the sacrificed animals was touched to women in order to increase their fertility. This strange ritual was an integral part of Roman culture. But in the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I renamed it St. Valentine’s Day and moved its date of celebration from February 15 to February 14.
The history of the holiday is fraught with inconsistencies. Though a St. Valentine was executed on February 14, some legends hold that multiple people by the same name have been executed on that day. Some scholars believe that there was just one St. Valentine, but that different cultures propagated different legends about him.
But why the connection to love? One legend holds that Valentine was responsible for passing notes between incarcerated Christian lovers and performing marriages between them. Another holds that he became romantically involved with a woman whose sight he had restored. In the legend, he sends her a note signed, “From your Valentine.”
Due in part to conflicting records and to the fact that these events happened so many centuries ago, it’s difficult to see exactly how this ancient saint came to be associated with a holiday honoring love.
Essentially, there’s no straightforward way to decipher the history of Valentine’s Day. But its ancient background may help shed some light on why contemporary Valentine’s Day celebrations are intimately connected with red, white, and pink colors.
Red, White, and Pink: The Colors of Valentine’s Day
Most of us have seen these three colors associated with Valentine’s Day for so long that we just take their association for granted. Some of us just assume that red is the color of the heart (and pink and white look nice alongside it) and that’s why it’s the de facto official color of the holiday.
Just like the history of the holiday itself, the history of its associated colors defies easy interpretation. Let’s take a closer look at the colors we associate most with the holiday of love.
Red: Ancient Associations
Anyone well-versed in color theory can tell you that red is the color of heightened emotions. In nature, it’s a color of warning. Think about the sinister red hourglass you see on black widow spiders. And somewhat confusingly, red is linked to a range of different emotions and states of being: anger, passion, love, aggression, passion, and intensity are all common associations.
The traditional connotations of red may be enough to explain why it’s one of the colors we associate with Valentine’s Day. However, its historical connections may also help explain the connection. For one, during the festival of Lupercalia, it was the (red) blood of sacrificed animals that was most closely associated with fertility. The later holiday commemorating the execution of St. Valentine is similarly connected to blood, as St. Valentine is believed to have been beheaded.
History helps explain some of red’s connotations, too. When textile dyes were beginning to be developed, red was one of the most luxurious, rare, and expensive colors. The gift of red fabric was a special one. Even for the wealthy, it was hard to come by.
Greek mythology offers a compelling explanation for the connection of red to love. According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, deeply loved a mortal called Adonis. As Adonis was dying, Aphrodite rushed toward him, stepping on the thorn of a white rose in the process. Her blood stained the white rose completely red, and according to the myth, this was the first red rose on earth.
Of course, one of the more simple reasons red is connected to love (and to St. Valentine’s Day) is the fact that it’s the same color of blood and of the heart.
This connection to love is part of why some countries, including China and India, encourage brides to wear red to their weddings. In these cultures, red is connected to prosperity, love, and fertility.
Red is probably the color we most associate with Valentine’s Day. But you rarely see Valentine’s Day decorations with just red. This color is almost always flanked by pink and white.
White: The Color of Purity
White is traditionally associated with purity and innocence, so why is it associated with a holiday dedicated to love? Like red, white has historical and mythological connections that help explain.
Thinking back to Lupercalia, red is the more dominant color. But recall that, after the blood was placed on the foreheads of the priests present, it was removed by a small piece of wool soaked in milk. Nobody knows with absolute certainty whether our current use of white as a Valentine’s Day color is tied to the ancient festival of Lupercalia, but it’s a logical explanation.
Another possible reason for our use of white is in the story of Aphrodite and Adonis. As mentioned above, as she was running to Adonis, Aphrodite cut her foot on the stem of a white rose. That rose was then stained red with blood.
On its own, white symbolizes purity. But its combination with red is significant when it comes to Valentine’s Day, too. The color combination of red and white is often thought to symbolize unity, which offers another explanation.
Historically, the red and white combination has been used to symbolize the relationship between Christ and the Church. In Christian theology, Christ died to atone for the sins of the world. The Bible refers to the Church as the bride of Christ, so white represents the Church. The combination is a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice.
St. Valentine was executed, in part, because of his belief in Christianity and his willingness to help Christians who were persecuted. This helps explain why the color white, along with red and pink, is so commonly associated with Valentine’s Day.
Pink: A Mix of Love and Innocence
While red and white feature prominently in most Valentine’s Day displays, you rarely see these colors unaccompanied by pink. Most of us know that pink is a blend of red and white, and it’s aesthetically pleasing when used beside them.
But pink’s significance goes a little deeper than that. Red is the color of passion and love, white is the color of innocence, and a mix of the two could be construed to mean that pink is a sort of innocent love. That’s why some people believe that pink is a useful symbol to represent friendly or familial love.
Those of us with an interest in color theory aren’t satisfied just knowing which colors are associated with a given holiday, we want to know why. And though the history behind Valentine’s Day isn’t exactly straightforward, its ancient background, both Christian and Pagan, sheds some light on its enduring colors. So the next time you see candies wrapped in red, white, and pink foil, remember Lupercalia, the death of St. Valentine, and the centuries of history that have brought us Valentine’s Day as we know it.