Monday, December 9

The Quad: The dark and complex origins of Valentine’s Day

(Creative Commons photo by Barbtek via flickr)

(Creative Commons photo by Barbtek via flickr)

The recent re-emergence of all things red, heart-shaped and sweet can only mean one thing: Love (or impressive marketing strategy) is in the air. From the well-stocked aisles of Target’s holiday section to our very own UCLA Store, the chocolate rose displays and colorful card kiosks are in full bloom. Whether you are a proud participant of the seasonal festivities or not, it is hard to deny the impressive extent to which Valentine’s Day has left its mark on our hearts and our wallets. Although Valentine’s Day is often thought of as a holiday of pink cards and puns, the true origins of this modern romantic holiday are a bit bloodier.

Our history starts in Rome during the fifth century, where Feb. 15, the day after the traditional Feb. 14, belonged more to the partiers than the lovers. Lupercalia was an annual pagan holiday celebrating the deity Lupa, the she-wolf mother of Roman founders Romulus and Remus, and Faunus, the god of fertility. Instead of exchanging handmade Valentines, ancient Roman priests preferred sacrificing animals – a goat for fertility and a dog for purity – at the cave where legend said these two Roman founders had been born and supernaturally nursed.

From there, the tradition took a gory turn as they proceeded to skin the animals and celebrate the season of love by whacking women with the fresh-slain hides in order to bless the women with fertility. This signaled the start of the rambunctious festivities. As part of the annual tradition, young women put their names into a lottery that the young bachelors of ancient Rome drew from to find their romantic pairings. These couplings lasted anywhere from a day to, in some cases, the rest of their lives. Surprisingly, there were times when these coincidental pairings paved the way to marriage, despite being borne in the midst of a drunk, naked celebration.

Valentine’s Day underwent a transformation during the Middle Ages. Pope Gelasius I officially declared the holiday on Feb. 14 in an effort to Christianize the season of Lupercalia. Because the Catholic Church recognizes multiple St. Valentines, it is difficult to trace back to the person this holiday is named after with absolute certainty. But, according to popular legend, Valentine’s Day was named after the St. Valentine who disobeyed the orders of Claudius II, who forbade marriages in an effort to curate a ruthless army free from the inconveniences of homesickness. St. Valentine cried out against this injustice and began to marry lovers in secret before he was executed during A.D. 270. Although there were no historical accounts to prove or disprove the truths of these legends with certainty, Valentine’s Day still remained a celebration of love.

Valentine’s Day continued to grow in prevalence thanks to the work of two romantics in particular. Geoffrey Chaucer, widely considered to be “the father of English literature,” and legendary playwright, William Shakespeare, who romanticized the holiday in their works, leading to the its popularity in Britain and eventually the rest of Europe. By the mid-18th century, Valentine’s Day was widely celebrated in Britain. All classes engaged handmade tokens of their affection with friends and lovers alike. In America, the exchange of handmade Valentines started at the beginning of the 18th century. By the 1900s though, ready-made cards had replaced handmade gifts due to the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, covertly marking the start of Valentine’s Day’s consumerist culture.

Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated worldwide in diverse ways. It is a holiday regarded with both notoriety and affection, a celebration so ingrained in global culture that it has become fundamentally linked with the idea of love itself.

In Denmark, friends and lovers exchange pressed white flowers called snowdrops. In South Africa, women pin the names of their love interests on their shirtsleeves. In South Korea, it’s the women who are expected to woo their love interests with gifts on Valentine’s Day before the arrival of Mar. 14, when the men return the favor. In Italy, one of the most common Valentine’s Day gifts is the Baci Parugina, a small, chocolate-covered hazelnut embellished with a quote written in four different languages.

In America, people typically exchange chocolates, letters, cards and flowers as their choice tokens of affection. But, like any other popularized holiday, the heavily commercialized nature of Valentine’s Day pressures consumers to spend; 53 percent of women said they would end their relationship if they didn’t receive something for Valentine’s Day.

In a society in which commercial traditions tend to be costly, many Americans are willing to let Cupid rifle through their wallets. About 35 percent of couples are planning a romantic night out, and will collectively spend about $3.7 billion on the occasion. Add in the expenses of other popular gifts, such as flowers, jewelry, candy and clothes, and the expenses are projected to land around a whopping $19.6 billion. The magnitude of the business of romance is incredible.

But just as traditions vary worldwide, so do the ways that different people celebrate love on what often seems like love’s biggest commercial holiday. So whether you dine at Napa Valley Grill after gifting that special someone a dozen roses or grab fast food and watch a free outdoor double-feature screening under the stars, remember what these ancient Roman partiers, saints and eloquent romantics have taught us: The point of Valentine’s Day has always been to celebrate love. The way you celebrates matters much less than what you’re celebrating and who you’re celebrating it with.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.