Years ago, I believed that the sole purpose of Valentine’s Day was to drive consumers to Hallmark stores so that they could spend a lot of money on overpriced cards that their loved ones will ultimately toss out without a second thought. Though that sentiment is probably true to some extent, I have come to appreciate Valentine’s Day for what it is: an attempt to institutionalize romance, which draws upon pagan tradition and Catholic influence to ultimately become associated with love and the middle of February.
The history and tradition of Valentine’s Day is convoluted and weird. Its exact transition from a Roman fertility festival to present-day commercial phenomenon is debated extensively by historians. This article’s information comes from historian Noel Lenski. Valentine’s Day is thought to originate with the Roman holiday Lupercalia, where men sacrificed animals and then whipped women with the recently-slain carcasses because culture dictated that this ritual kept women fertile. Young men then drew women’s names randomly from a jar in a matchmaking lottery in which the matches would be coupled sexually for the rest of the festival. By 3rd century AD, the Romans executed two men both named Valentine in different years — both on February 14. The men were treated as martyrs of the Catholic church and received a day in their name. Later, a Catholic pope combined Lupercalia and St. Valentine’s Day in a futile attempt to remove Lupercalia’s pagan romantic themes.
During the Middle Ages, Chaucer and Shakespeare popularized and romanticized the holiday in their work. Handmade cards became a thing during this time, and the Industrial Revolution several hundred years later expanded the card industry to a dizzying degree. Here we are now.
This brief history of Valentine’s Day is informative, but the real question stands: Is Valentine’s Day really about love? Historically, no, however, who cares? The holiday is an odd cultural synthesis of history’s earmarks which has a much different function now than it did hundreds of years ago. Holidays depend upon individual socialization and widespread awareness to give them meaning for a particular context. Presently, Valentine’s Day fills a void in our holiday continuum for institutionalized romance and appreciation for the individual, whereas other prominent holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas emphasize the family. Whether the holiday ultimately supports the appreciation of romance, the individual or pairs of people, it is a stark and welcome departure from other holidays. Humans observe occasions which have themes demanded by society. Our perpetuation of Valentine’s Day is a manifestation of how important love and romance are in a public setting to American society, having a day to celebrate it is simply a natural byproduct of human values.