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Valentine’s Day Symbols – What Do They Mean & Where’d They Originate?

Valentine’s Day is here! Before you start brewing your love potions, let’s learn about the Valentine’s Day symbols, and how they came to be!

This time of the year is a perfect time to show our loved ones how much we care.

Maybe you want to do something special, like baking them a batch of homemade white chocolate peppermint cookies, or making them a thoughtful Valentine’s Day craft

Below we will go over all of the Valentine’s Day symbols, their meanings, and history. Once you learn about them, you can incorporate them in your celebrations this year!

Many of these Valentine’s Day symbols will be familiar to you, but some may surprise you. Let us know your favorite in the comments below!

Red roses and hearts on a white background with a text overlay with questions about Valentine's Day symbols like "why are roses given on Valentine's Day" and "Why is the heart a symbol of Valentine's Day"?

What are the Valentine’s Day symbols?

There are six main Valentine’s Day symbols: hearts, love birds, roses, Cupid, love knots, and Valentine’s Day cards (love notes).

During the month of February, you’re bound to see at least a few of them! There are some other minor Valentine’s day symbols, but those six are the most closely associated with the holiday.

Below, we will cover both the major and minor Valentine’s Day symbols, their history and meanings.

Three red roses laying on top of a February calendar with Valentine's Day circled in a red heart.

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Why are roses given on Valentine’s Day?

Flowers have a long history of being used as symbols, so it’s no surprise they are one of the most well known Valentine’s Day symbols.

Maybe you’ve given your sweetheart a bouquet of red roses, or maybe you’ve opted for candy roses. Either way, you’re celebrating this image of Valentine’s Day.

Throughout history, Shakespeare used flowers as symbols in his writing, and flowers have also been used as symbols in religious texts.

The bible mentions only three flowers: lilies, roses, and crocus. However, dogwood trees and palm branches have religious symbolism as well, as they are both symbols of Easter!

An ink drawing of a man wearing a suit's hand holding a rose and reaching out to a woman's hand with a bracelet on to show why roses are given on Valentine's Day.

Sending flowers to communicate love became popular in the 19th century in the United States and Victorian England when floriography (the language of flowers) became popular. 

People would communicate using floriography by sending specific floral arrangements with coded messages to their intended recipient.

Each flower and plant had a specific meaning (in most cases, multiple meanings). The recipient of the bouquet would use a floral dictionary to decode the messages, which were often of love and adoration.

If you’ve ever sent a loved one flowers for Valentine’s Day, you’ve actually been communicating using floriography! 

What does a red rose mean on Valentine’s Day?

Even though we don’t communicate using floriography as extensively as they did in the 19th century, we still attribute many meanings to flowers.

Did you know each color of roses has a different meaning? That means you can pick the best color to express how you feel for any type of love in your life, love between friends, the love for family, and course romantic love!

Roses in general are a symbol of Valentine’s Day, but red roses are most often associated with Valentine’s Day because of their meaning.

A bouquet of red roses on a wooden background on Valentine's Day.

Red roses are a symbol of romantic love on Valentine’s Day. They symbolize true love, romance, passion and desire.

In Greek mythology, red roses were one of the symbols of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. Aphrodite had a son named Eros, who was known for being the god of erotic love. If you rearrange the letters in Eros – you get the word rose! 

Roses have been tied to love since ancient times, and their meaning is still strong today. Roses are the most popular flower sent on Valentine’s Day, and have even appeared as a symbol in television shows, like The Bachelor, as a gift of love.

In addition to being a Valentine’s Day symbol, roses have several national days of the year dedicated to them, like National Red Rose Day, Rose Day, and World Rose Day.

Head to our post with facts about roses to learn more about this beautiful Valentine’s Day symbol.

Who wrote the first Valentine?

People have been expressing their love for each other since the beginning of time, through love notes. As Valentine’s Day is a time to express love, it makes sense that Valentine’s Day cards are a symbol of the day.

In modern times, Valentine’s Day cards can frequently be found tucked under the ribbon of a wrapped present with a gift tag addressed to your loved one.

These cards have evolved a lot over the years, so let’s take a look at the first one! The first recorded Valentine’s Day love letter was written in 1477 by Margery Brews to her fiancée John Paston.

Her family was having trouble increasing her dowry, and she wrote to John, her “right well-beloved Valentine” asking him to marry her anyway, even if the dowry couldn’t be increased.

Love won in this story, and the two were wed.

One of the first Valentines depicting a cupid holding a bow and arrow pointing towards a heart made of flowers, in a woodland setting with doves flying above and text that reads "to my Valentines".

Some attribute the first Valentine’s Day letter to Charles, the Duke of Orleans, claiming he wrote a poem (displayed in the British Library) to his second wife while imprisoned in England. 

Charles d’Orleans, a member of the French royal family, was indeed captured during the Battle of Agincourt and imprisoned for 25 years (1415-1440).

However the British Library asserts that while he composed many of the 500 poems written during his life while captured, the Valentine’s poem in question was written after his release.

Though an interesting story, the first Valentine was not actually sent from prison as some sources report.

If you want to send your own handwritten letter, check out our inspirational love quotes and these romantic rose quotes for special sayings to include in your love note.

Esther Howland & Valentine’s Day cards

If you don’t feel like writing a letter, that’s ok! We have other options for sending out Valentines, thanks to people like Esther A. Howland. She is responsible for making Valentine’s Day cards popular in the United States.

In 1828, when Esther Howland was 19, she received a Valentine from her father’s business associate. The front of the card had lace and small colored flowers pasted on the front, and a short message inside.

She thought she could make a better Valentine, so she made several mock ups and sent them with her brother (who was a stationary salesman) to see if people would like to buy them.

There was a large demand for her cards so she began a business, in the mid 1800s. She initially employed friends to help create the Valentine’s Day cards.

When the demand exploded, and she ended up with an extremely successful business, which employed many women. Her business grossed $100,000 yearly, which would be significantly more today!

One of the first Valentine's Day cards, made in the shape of a heart with a cupid in the center holding ribbon in a bed of flowers with text on it that reads "with love and devotion".

Esther Howland eventually became known as the “Mother of the American Valentine”.

While Valentine’s day cards existed in England before Esther started making them, she is the one credited with commercializing Valentine’s Day cards and popularizing them in the United States.

Esther Howland was known for three dimensional English style cards, with lots of lace, satin, silk and a Cupid on the front. They contained a short message inside the card, and a red “H” stamped on the back.

Once Valentine’s Day cards had become popularized by Howland, other companies started producing them. Hallmark offered their first Valentine’s card in 1913.

According to Hallmark, 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged every year. This doesn’t even include the packaged Valentine’s kids exchange at school.

The only holiday to surpass these numbers is Christmas. Make sure to check out the history of Christmas cards to learn more.


Who is Cupid?

The word Cupid brings to mind images of a chubby winged baby shooting arrows of love to bring people together.

With an image like that, it’s no surprise Cupid is a well known Valentine’s Day symbol. Let’s go over who Cupid is, and why this lovebug is a symbol of Valentine’s Day.

A stone statue of Cupid depicted as a winged baby holding a bow and arrow.

The origin of Cupid lies in Greek and Roman mythology. In Greek mythology we have Aphrodite (the goddess of love, beauty and fertility) and her son Eros (the god of erotic love). 

Roman mythology took those Greek gods and reimagined their stories naming the gods Venus and Cupid. Though we now see Cupid as a sweet baby bringing lovers together, early mythology told a much different story.

Cupid (Eros) was often depicted as mischievous. He is known for his bow and quiver of arrows made of gold and lead. The golden arrows would cause their targets to feel uncontrollable love, and the leaded arrows would cause extreme hatred.

In one myth, Cupid (Eros) shot the god Apollo with a golden arrow, causing him to fall in love with the nymph Daphne. He then shot Daphne with a leaded arrow to cause her to hate Apollo.

Check out the story of Daphne and Apollo, with contains information on the gods, and reveals why their love story was historically significant.

In Greek and Roman mythology, Cupid is one of the only gods to have a love story with a happy ending. Learn more about how Cupid found his one true love in the story of Cupid and Psyche.

Valentine’s Day Cupid

The earliest depictions of Cupid described as a slender, handsome, winged youth. By the Hellenistic period, his image changed to one of a chubby winged baby.

The image of a chubby baby with wings was reinforced in the 19th century with the increase in popularity of Valentine’s Day cards.

Six clip art Valentine's Day Cupids doing various things like holding a bow and arrow, playing the harp, holding a box of chocolates and heart shaped balloon.

Victorian era Valentine’s Day cards in England, and Esther Howland’s Valentine’s Day cards in America, depicted in Cupid the same way. He was shown as a chubby, cherub-like baby with wings, a bow, and quiver of arrows.

This image of a childlike Valentine’s Day Cupid is how we think of him today. Over time his malicious nature has turned more mischievous and he has become associated with true love instead of unrequited love.

Love knot meaning

When you think of Valentine’s Day symbols, love knots may not be the first ones that come to mind, but throughout time, knots have long been associated with love.

In general, knots symbolize binding things together, and love knots symbolize binding two people in love together.

Rope formed in the shape of a heart, symbolizing a love knot on a beige background.

Sailors at sea used to wrap wire gold wire in a lover’s knot around their fingers as a form of a wedding ring. There is not one set “love knot”, but instead many knots that have been used to symbolize love.

One common love knot is the fisherman’s knot, also known as the “true lover’s knot”, used for tying rope. Celtic love knots are also popular and frequently used in jewelry.

Tying the knot meaning – what is “handfasting”?

Now that you know the significance of knots and love, it will come as no surprise that getting married is often referred to as “tying the knot”.

In fact, there is a marriage love knot tradition called handfasting that dates back to 7000 B.C.E. in Ireland.

This tradition involved tying a rope or ribbon around a couple’s hands in the presence of a priest to signify their unity and bond them together.

A couple during their wedding with ropes tied around their hands in a tradition called handfasting.

The tradition can be performed at the start on an engagement, during the wedding ceremony itself, or when renewing vows. When removing the knot, it is recommended to slip out of it, and leave the knot in tact.

The idea of tying a knot around a couple is not limited to Ireland, though. Many cultures have their own knot tying ceremonies to bind couples in love together, each tradition rooted in the history of their culture.

Which bird is a symbol of Valentine’s Day?

There are two birds commonly associated with Valentine’s Day: lovebirds and doves. With a name like “lovebirds” it’s no surprise this bird is a Valentine’s Day symbol.

Lovebirds are a small, brightly colored parrot native to South Africa. Wild lovebirds are mostly green, with different colored faces (peach, red, black, grey, yellow, etc).

Two lovebirds cuddling next to each other on a branch, both lovebirds have green and yellow bodies with black heads and orange beaks.

Their average lifespan is anywhere between 15 and 30 years, depending on the type of lovebird. They reach sexual maturity at 10 months of age, and then mate for life. 

Since lovebirds mate for life, it makes sense that this bird is a Valentine’s Day symbol. They represent love, loyalty, fidelity and devotion. 

What do doves symbolize?

While lovebirds are a symbol of Valentine’s Day, the bird you’re more likely to see depicted around this time of year is the dove. 

They come in many colors, but white doves are the ones associated with Valentine’s Day. White doves symbolize love, innocence, purity, hope and peace.

The silhouette of two doves at sunset sitting on a wire with the beaks touching forming a heart in the space between them symbolizing the dove's meaning.

Like lovebirds, many varieties of doves mate for life. In addition to being a Valentine’s Day symbol, white doves are often associated with weddings, another celebration of love.

Doves also are frequently seen during Christmas, and in churches, because of their religious symbolism.

Why is the heart a symbol of Valentine’s Day?

The most popular Valentine’s Day symbol is the heart. During this time of year, you can find everything from heart shaped cookies, to heart themed decor.

When we think of hearts, in relation to Valentine’s Day, it’s impossible not to think of love.

Throughout history, the heart was the most important part of the body; far more important than the brain. The heart was believed to be not only the place where all emotions come from, but also where our souls reside.

It was credited as the place in the body where memories are held. Feelings of true love and the commands God were thought to be inscribed on the heart.

A chocolate cake make in the shape of a heart, one of the most popular Valentine's Day symbols with frosting in different shades of pink and red making icing flowers on a plate on a pink background with paper cut out hearts next to it.

Ancient Egyptians even believed that weight of a person’s heart determined the fate of their afterlife! They went through a ceremony called the weighing of the heart.

Over time, we have grown to have a much deeper scientific understanding of both the heart and brain.

We know that the heart is a muscle responsible for pumping blood through our circulatory system, and our brain is responsible for thoughts and emotions.

Many people today still believe that love resides in the heart, making this shape a perfect Valentine’s Day symbol.

Origin of the heart shape

Though the heart shape we see on greeting cards looks very different than an anatomical human heart, this image has been accepted as a symbol for our hearts, love and emotions.

There are a couple of different theories for the origin of the heart shape. One points to an extinct plant, and the other an ancient philosopher.

A heart made of red roses on a white background to allude to the meaning of red roses.

Some believe the heart shape came from a now-extinct plant, native to Northern Africa, called silphium. This plant from the fennel family was used as an herb, medicine, aphrodisiac and even an early form of birth control.

Silphium grew seeds that were shaped likes hearts. With its heart shaped seeds, and connection to sex (and then eventually to love) some believe silphium to be the origin of the heart shape.

Others believe that Aristotle inspired the heart symbol’s depiction by incorrectly identifying the shape of the human heart.

In The History of Animals, he described it as having three chambers, a rounded top, and pointed bottom.

This description would have influenced the portrayal of the shape of the heart in medical texts, and works of art.

No matter the origin of the heart shape, it’s now widely accepted as a symbol of love, and of Valentine’s Day.


Fun facts about Valentine’s Day symbols

Brush up on your knowledge of these major Valentine’s Day symbols with some fun facts. Below is one for each symbol:

Two Valentine's Day symbols, hearts and roses on a wooden background.

  • Roses have different meanings depending on what color they are. Red roses symbolize romance, passion, true love and desire.
  • Not all Valentine’s Day cards were nice – in the Victorian era, you could buy “Vinegar Valentines” which were cards designed to insult the recipient. 
  • It’s a tale as old as time…The story Beauty and the Beast draws inspiration for part of its story from the Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche.
  • It was a Celtic tradition to exchange Celtic love knots as a symbol of love, in the same way that we exchange engagement and wedding rings today.
  • In Geoffrey Chaucer’s 699 line poem, The Parliament of Fowles, he says that Valentine’s Day is the day that every bird finds their mate. This literature ties the symbolism between birds and Valentine’s Day together since at least the late 14th century.
  • In ancient times, it was believed that the heart was the center bodies, and also where our emotions, memories, soul, and wisdom were held.

If you liked these Valentine’s Day facts, head to our post on Galentine’s Day to learn the history of this other special day in February

Other more minor Valentine’s Day symbols

Now that we’ve discussed the six main Valentine’s Day symbols, let’s touch on three more minor symbols.

Chocolate is one of the more minor symbols you’ll probably see in every store this Valentine’s Day! Whether you like dark chocolate or white chocolate, this symbol is for you. 

A hand in a lace glove reaching into a box of Valentine's Day chocolates and choosing a milk chocolate truffle.

Another symbol of the holiday are the colors which represent it. Red, pink and white are the most symbolic Valentine’s Day colors. Make sure you check out our guide to Valentine’s Day colors and meanings.

The last Valentine’s Day symbol encompasses ribbon, lace and frills. All three could commonly be found on Victorian era and early United States Valentine’s Day cards. 

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More posts like this one on the Valentine’s Day symbols

Be sure to also check out these posts to learn about the history and symbolism tied to your favorite holidays and traditions.

A red envelope with a love note coming out of it and little hearts around it on a pink background to symbolize early Valentine's Day cards.

If you liked the facts about Valentine’s Day symbols in this post, check out our fun facts archive filled with more holiday related trivia!

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Would you like a reminder of this post with information on the Valentine’s Day symbols? Just pin this image to one of your Valentine’s Day boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.

You can also watch our Love Quotes video on YouTube.

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Jess author photoAbout the author

Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.

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