On Valentines Day, it is usual custom to unite with your partner and celebrate this romantic event. Tom Abadie walks us through the origins of this day as well as how to celebrate it differently.
14th February – is it a date you anticipate eagerly, await with dread or totally ignore? Do you have that special someone to celebrate it with? Will you receive that long-awaited card from a secret admirer? Presents ranging from flowers to jewelry, a special dinner or a sentimental card with red hearts are expected, but all with one goal in mind; get that other person to fall in love with you! In today’s society, social norms have built up expectations around this day, but where did it start and how is this special day celebrated differently in the world?
The origins of this special day are somewhat difficult to pinpoint, but stories have been passed on since the Roman Empire. Claudius II decided to make marriages illegal for young men as they were supposed to go to battle. According to the legend, Valentine, possibly a priest at the time, found this unjust and decided to conduct secret marriages, for which he was uncovered and sentenced to death. Another story says Valentine tried helping Christians escape from Roman and was imprisoned as a result. During his confinement, it is said that he sent the first love card, probably to his jailor’s daughter, signed “From your Valentine”, an expression still used today. Ultimately, Saint Valentine’s legend represents someone devoted to love.
Stories also say the Christian church in the Middle Ages ‘created’ this special date to Christianise the Pagan celebration of Lupercalia. This celebration took place in Rome on the 15th of February, where people of the city sacrificed goats – a symbol of sexuality – and a dog. Men would use thongs cut from the animals to whip the women in the town, supposedly making them fertile. They would then choose from a jar a random name of a woman from the town and the couple would be paired for the duration of the festival. Many couples would stay together until the following year’s festival, or even end up getting married.
The tradition of Saint Valentine being the “Patron Saint of Lovers” became more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. It started with handwritten letters, but eventually, with the advancement in printing and cheaper postal charges, it became more common to send lovers a card expressing your feelings. Today, an estimated one billion cards are sent out during this holiday, making it the second most popular “card” holiday after Christmas.
Saint Valentine’s Day is generally associated with love and romantic gestures. In China, women shower men with gifts such as chocolate, flowers and candies, aiming to woo them on the 14th of February. This is reciprocated one month later, on the14th of March or “White Day”, with the men taking the lead. The Philippines have a similar celebration to Saint Valentine’s Day, taking in one step further; there are many weddings organised on this day, meaning the country goes into one giant celebration of love.
France celebrates it in a classic way with romantic dinners in a classy restaurant, accompanied by gifts, from flowers to confectionery. These dinners can also be the occasion to finally propose or announce a happy event such as pregnancy. However, there was a very particular tradition held in the country. Men and women would pair up, and if the men were not satisfied with their match they could leave their partner and find another one. The unmatched women would then gather around a bonfire to burn pictures of the men who wronged them and to insult them. The tradition was fortunately finally banned by the government. France, “the country of love” they say…
However, it is not always associated with romantic love across the world. I have a memory from my time in New York in Kindergarten, where we gave cards to everyone in the class because it represented friendship. We were only 4 or 5 years old, but the teachers encouraged us to celebrate St Valentine’s Day as a Friendship Day. This is very far from the romantic image created by the consumerist society we have of what we celebrate today. In Denmark, friends and sweethearts exchange white flowers which are called “snowdrops”. Legends say that in Norfolk, children celebrate this day similarly to Christmas, where they wait for candies and small gifts.
Over the last 30-40 years, the holiday has become more commercial with certain expectations. Should I buy chocolates or flowers? Is this restaurant expensive enough? Similarly to Christmas, the 14th of February has become a key profit-making event. Businesses make tremendous amounts of money every year from this “celebration of love”, be it food, flowers, restaurants or even jewellery. Is it ethical? These companies (dating apps and card manufacturers for example) make profits from individuals who feel “required” by society to mark the occasion on that day – a special dinner, a cuddly teddy bear, a sparkly diamond. You are of course still free to decide differently; however, the pressure from society means that you can feel obliged to follow the movement and pay money that you probably would not pay under different circumstances. It can lead to competition or spoil simpler, purer romantic gestures and unfortunately, this trend is on a downhill slope and I fear that it will only get worse in the years to come.
Saint Valentine’s is a special day. A day for love, whether it is romantic love or love for friends and family. It is all still love. Even with this commercialisation of love, optimists still see this as a very important, sentimental annual holiday. Ultimately, you might be single on Valentine’s Day, but you are not alone. You have friends to share it with, around a glass of wine and chocolates and in front of a movie, even if it is Bridget Jones. Just like Christmas, there is a special spirit and a different kind of magic, magic called love.