Valentine’s is a day for love. For romance. For affection and for celebrating the people in your life that mean the most to you. Yet, somewhere along the way, our celebrations turned sour. They lost their meaning and became something else. Something commercial.
Commercialisation is, of course, nothing new; nor is it confined to Valentine’s Day. It’s everywhere. It’s on Television, the radio, online and in print. We are constantly bombarded with messages that remind us to spend money. Failing to spend as much as your peers will, inevitably, lead to the slow decomposition of your relationships. Your wallet must be emptied on Valentine’s Day, or your significant other will assume that you don’t care. If you didn’t receive a card, a bouquet or a box of chocolates today, your relationship is in tatters. Or so society would lead us to believe.
Our spending habits have been recorded by numerous studies. One investigation found that the average American planned to spend $161.96 on this year’s Valentine’s gifts, with total sales exceeding $20 billion in the US. That’s a $20 increase, per person, since 2017. Adjusted for inflation, Americans increased their budgets for spoiling their partners this year by around $18. To compare, Americans also earn, on average, $950.82 per week. Therefore, Valentines budgets account for 17% of their wages. If expenditures and inflation both rise at steady rates, Valentine’s Day budgets will account for more of our wages every year.
Every year the world wonders: why? Why do we live in a perpetual cycle of spending, required once a year, to demonstrate our feelings of adoration? Is this what Valentine’s Day is all about, or have we moved far from its origins? Do these old traditions even present themselves in any way in the 21st Century?
At the end of October 2018, I revealed that the origins of Halloween were rooted in Pagan traditions. As it would turn out, Valentine’s Day isn’t so different. Its Pagan roots posit that the holiday originated from a Roman festival known as Lupercalia. Mysteries have surrounded the festival’s name for years. One theory argues that it was derived from ‘Lupus’, meaning ‘wolf’. Others suggest that the festival was named after the Lupercal, the cave in which the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were nursed by Lupa, a she-wolf. Lupa became a symbol for the City, so honouring her makes sense.
The festival itself was also a time to celebrate the Roman God Lupercus, whose body was half-man, half goat. His upper body was human, while his head was adorned with horns. His lower body, meanwhile, was a goat’s. Because of this symbolism, priests would sacrifice goats, smearing their blood on youths wearing goatskin thongs. The Luperci, as this collective group was known, took strips of goatskin to whip women, a technique thought to promote fertility. A festival as foreign and barbaric as this earned its cultural resonance at the close of the 16th Century, when William Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar. The Emperor instructs Mark Antony to strike his wife, with the hope that doing so will increase her chances of pregnancy.
The festival took place between the 13th and 15th of February. Accompanying Lupercalia was the feast of Juno Februa, Roman Goddess of passionate love. Accordingly, women wrote their names on slips of paper, which were picked at random by men. The pair coupled for a day of so-called erotic games, with the aim of securing long-term marriage.
Where our modern Valentine’s Day is associated with love and romance, the Pagan festival was concerned with heated sexual passion.
The provenance of Lupercalia would not last forever.
As we learned through the origins of Halloween, Pope Gregory I was responsible for merging the Pagan seasons, including Beltane, Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh, into Christian holidays. He was not, however, the first Pope to overwrite Pagan traditions. Over one hundred years before this, his predecessor, Pope Gelasius I, repressed Paganism in the face of Christianity. He planned to repress Lupercalia with a single-day celebration of the Christian Saint, Valentine, which would take place on the 14th of February. The tradition of submitting girls’ names into an urn for a matchmaking lottery was watered-down into a family-friendly event. The girl’s names were replaced with the names of Saints, with youths emulating their personalities for a day. The idea was to spread Christianity and encourage conversion from what Gelasius viewed as a religion composed of a ‘vile rabble’ of people.
But why Valentine?
No one knows for sure what the Saint allegedly did. One theory states that Valentine was a Roman priest, beheaded for unknown reasons. Conversely, Valentine may have been an Italian bishop, devoted to healing the sick. While imprisoned for practicing Christianity, the bishop restored the sight of a prison guard’s blind daughter.
A backstory more suited to our modern interpretation of the holiday asserts that Valentine performed marriages at a time when doing so was illegal. Claudius, emperor of Rome from 41-54 A.D., instituted the ban when recruitment into his army dwindled. Men were too reluctant to leave their families, so banning marriage was, presumably, the only logical way forward. Valentine defied that ban, believing in the sanctity of marriage, which would cost him his life. He was executed on the 14th of February which – conveniently for the Christian Church – aligned with the date of Lupercalia. Regardless of the tale you choose to believe, it is hard to deny that each story paints the Christian Saint as a hero. And heroes, as we have learned from the silver screen in recent years, sell.
So, Lupercalia is no more. It’s been merged into Saint Valentine’s Day, a celebration of the Saint of the same name. The day has lost all connotations of passionate love. It was not until the Middle Ages that romance would return in full force, albeit in a different form. Valentine’s Day re-emerged through the prism of courtly love.
Courtly love traditionally involved a knight and an unwinnable, married noble woman. Their love was unconsummated, highlighting the relationship’s romantic elements and the knight’s anguish. Geoffrey Chaucer embodied courtly love in his Parliament of Fowls poem, comparing Valentine’s Day to birdsong, wherein birds sang to their mates. He wrote:
“For this was on Saint Valentine’s day / When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
Courtly love would continue under the penmanship of countless others, such as in Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, which tells a story of unrequited love. The pain of love soon became widespread, but the associations with the heart remained unexplained. Why this organ over all others? Our answer predates the births of Sidney and Chaucer by many years. In 1255, a French poet wrote Le Roman De Poire, which told of the poem’s protagonist sharing a pear with his lover, an allegory for giving away one’s heart. Later, in the 14th Century, the image of a heart with a dent at its base, which we all know today, first surfaced in Documenti d’amore. The Italian creator of the piece, Francesco Barberino, included an illustration of a naked cupid atop a galloping horse. Cupid could be seen throwing arrows, roses and hearts at bystanders. The heart was now synonymous with love, and Cupid as the day’s mischievous guardian.
A Post-Industrial World
I have so far explained away the development of Lupercalia into what we know as Valentine’s Day, and how the event came to be linked with romantic love, but not its rapid rise in commercialisation. Contrary to popular belief, the commercialisation of the day did not come in recent years. No period where Valentine’s Day only concerned romantic love exists within living memory. This is because the event was quite suddenly commercialised during and after the days of the Industrial Revolution. It was after the world developed toward modernity that the likes of Cadbury began production on their heart-shaped chocolate boxes in the 1860s. Hershey’s Kisses appeared in 1907, and Hallmark cards soon after in 1913.
However, even Valentine’s cards have origins rooted in History. It was in 1477 that the first known Valentine written in English was sent – by Margery Brews, referring to her fiancé as ‘my right well-beloved valentine’. Similar messages are now repeated all over the world.
Clearly, the growing commercialisation of Valentine’s Day was inevitable. As literacy levels increased, more people were able to read about courtly love, while others simply viewed vibrant paintings full of romantic imagery. The population grew, and with the Industrial Revolution, they collected higher wages. We started spending more, feeding into the lie that relationships are valued on money, rather than feelings.
Do you feel like revolting? Then keep it simple this Valentine’s Day. Let your loved ones know you care without spending a fortune.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
 https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/. Cumulative rate of inflation: -2.4%. $161.96 in 2019 equates to $158.10 in 2017.