Valentine’s Day. An $18.6 billion dollar holiday in the United States second only to Christmas. As some of us anticipate a giddy day filled with flowers and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, others of us dread stuffing 35 hypoallergenic lollipops into gift baggies for everyone in their child’s third-grade class. At any rate, the hope is that we all find a spare moment in the day to appreciate our loved ones, whatever that means to us.
While the religious undertones of other western holidays like Christmas and Halloween are widely understood, Valentine’s Day is often regarded as a modern commercial holiday. In actuality, Valentine’s Day traces back to Ancient Rome and has its roots in paganism, Christianity, and even natural science.
In Ancient Rome, a raucous celebration of fertility known as the Feast of Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15th. The Romans believed that this was the first day of the year when birds paired off and began to mate. On the eve of the festival (February 14th), the names of young women were written on slips of paper and put in a jar. Young men would then select names at random and be ‘paired’ with that young woman for the duration of the festival. This was unique in that unmarried youth in Rome were kept entirely separated during other times of the year. Quite often, these pairings would become marriages.
During his reign, Emperor Claudius II abolished marriage, thinking that his failure to recruit soldiers for his unpopular military campaigns had to do with men not wanting to leave their wives and children. After this, a Christian priest named Valentine started marrying couples in secret, but when discovered was executed by the Emperor. There exists yet another legend of a bishop, also named Valentine, who helped Christians imprisoned and tortured by the Roman Empire to escape. This story has Valentine falling in love with the jailer’s daughter, sending her a love letter signed ‘your Valentine,’ and in doing so, coined the phrase as we know it today. Both of these men are said to have been executed by Claudius II on February 14th of different years. The men were later endowed with sainthood under the same name, St. Valentine.
Around 498 AD, in an effort to eliminate pagan rituals, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th St.Valentine’s Day and outlawed the Feast of Lupercalia altogether. This push from Paganism to Christianity defined the shift from Roman dominance in Europe to the time period now known as the Middle Ages. The transition from Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day is a major hallmark that defines these two periods from one another. During the Middle ages, popular authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized the occasion throughout western Europe. Around 1400, handmade paper cards made their first appearance as tokens of romantic love exchanged on St. Valentine’s Day.
In the United States, the first generic Valentine’s Day cards were made by Esther Howland in the 1840s. Esther, “The Mother of the American Valentine,” designed elaborate cards made with lace and ribbon, in keeping with the European traditions of the time. Her cards were a cheaper alternative to the wildly expensive European ones and launched Valentine’s Day to widespread popularity in the United States.
In 1913 in Kansas City Missouri, a small company called Hallmark Cards began its illustrious ascent to capitalist, corporate fame when it started churning out Valentine’s Day cards en masse. And thus, the notion of the contemporary Valentine’s Day was born, in all its drug-store-candy, giant-teddy-bear glory. Today, Hallmark is a private company valued at $4 billion dollars.
On February 14th 2021, Americans will buy 145 million Valentine’s Day cards, and spend $1.8 billion on candy alone! A whopping $4.7 billion will be spent on jewelry, while around $3.7 billion spent for a night out on the town. Men, on average, will spend $338 for the big day while women will only spend around $64. Nearly six million couples will get engaged on Valentine’s Day; what better reason to get your girlfriend all dolled up and out to a fancy locale?
Whether you are a Valentine’s Day Scrooge or a regular Lothario, it’s hard to escape this historic, pervasive, ‘Hallmark’ holiday. Valentine’s Day has defined empires and religions for millennia. Its evolution into the second most profitable commercial institution since Christmas has solidified its notoriety in our culture – and like any profitable enterprise, Valentine’s Day won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.