The Legacy of Valentine’s Day
By: Julia Connell
Diamonds shining on a 14k gold ring. Heart-shaped latex balloons. Milk chocolate and red roses. Images of happy “masculine” men kissing “feminine” women on TV.
What’s the price of “love” this holiday?
Despite accusations of complete corporate fabrication, Valentine’s Day has a shaky but storied history. February has been celebrated as a month dedicated to love since at least Roman times. Lupercalia in particular was a famous pagan fertility festival. Dedicated to the Roman agricultural god, Faunus, it often involved goat and dog sacrifices. At the end of the festival, a city’s women would place their names in an urn, and single men would pull out a name and spend a year “paired” with that woman.
The Catholic Church also has three former saints named Valentine (or a variation thereof), all who were supposedly martyred on February 14. A wide range of contradictory stories about these Valentines exist. In one, Valentine supposedly performed marriages for young couples during the 3rd century BC, when a need for soldiers meant that marriage for young men was outlawed. In another, Valentine helped Christians escape from Roman prisons. When Valentine was caught and imprisoned, he fell in love with his prisoner’s daughter.
While these stories don’t have much historical backing, European Christians during the Middle Ages saw a generalized version of “Valentine” as a popular, romantic icon. In the mid-20th century, the Catholic Church removed St. Valentine’s feast day from the liturgical calendar, citing murky historical origins of the celebrated men.
It is quite possible that — in a practice similar to treatment of Christmas and the Roman winter solstice celebration Saturnalia — the Catholic Church placed the original St. Valentine’s Day close to Lupercalia in order to “Christianize” it. Valentine’s Day as we know it today with gifts and cards became popular in America and Great Britain across social classes during the mid 18th century.
Today, Valentine’s Day faces gross accusations of being a Hallmark holiday, or a holiday mostly perpetuated by careful marketing and a need for economic growth. The National Retail Foundation, which tracks spending statistics in America, noted that Americans spent $17.3 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2014, a figure that is estimated to increase by over a billion dollars this year. The average person who celebrates Valentine’s Day will spend around $140 dollars!
This raises a very uncomfortable question: does our society conflate love with big spending? Samhita Mukhopadhyay, creator of the term “romantic-industrial complex”, seems to think so. In addition to rising spending on Valentine’s Day, the average American wedding costs about $30,000 — and rising every year. However, actual marriage rates have fallen due to young adults’ lack of funds. This suggests that typical displays of love — such as marriage and Valentine’s Day celebrations — might be out of reach for those who can’t afford it.
Aside from a shaky history and the uncomfortable commodification of “love,” feminism has several problems with February 14th.
For one, Valentine’s Day reinforces heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the idea that heterosexuality is the default “normal” sexuality, and that the men and women in these relationships should fit specific gender roles. With few exceptions, media and advertisements related to Valentine’s Day rarely show people who deviate from this standard. Hallmark featured a same-sex couple in a Valentine’s Day advertisement for the first time ever just this year. People who are polyamorous or asexual are practically erased on this holiday. While this could just be indicative of the larger issue — lack of diversity in media — it’s a slap in the face to ignore alternative sexualities on a day that claims to celebrate romantic love.
Even within heterosexual relationships, the “holiday of love” highlights sexist and outdated ideals. Men in particular can feel pressure to provide for a female partner, some even going to extreme measures like stealing kittens (no joke). Additionally, gifts are very frequently labeled as “For Him” or “For Her”. This creates many problems. First, the recognition of only two genders. Second, the idea that certain objects or interests are inherently gendered, rather than a product of social conditioning.
Finally, Valentine’s Day values romantic relationships above platonic ones, which can make those without a significant other feel very left out. A quick Google search for “single on Valentine’s Day” returned over 42 million hits, many including articles on how to cope with feeling alone on the holiday. Valentine’s Day exclude singles, and the value of a person should never depend on whether or not they have a romantic partner.
It’s fine to want to treat yourself or a significant other on Valentine’s Day. But this holiday, think a little more about what all the hype — the gift-giving, the letters, the chocolates, and advertisements — actually mean. Make this Valentine’s Day meaningful and inclusive!