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Julia Yang / Gavel Media

Is Valentine’s Day a Holiday About Love or a Consumerist Plot?

From unknown origins seeping with both Christian and Pagan lore, Valentine’s Day has been a celebrated holiday for over seven centuries, with origins dating back even further to the fifth or third century. Today, however, the holiday looks very different from its roots. Catchy slogans and cheesy greeting cards dominate the industry turning Valentine's Day into a holiday more focused on how much money you're willing to spend on someone instead of how much you love them.

The many theories of Valentine’s Day, for the most part, date back to the ancient Roman Empire. The namesake of the holiday, Saint Valentine, could have been any one of the many canonized by the Church. The most popular and widely accepted theory highlights a priest by the name of Saint Valentine under the rule of Emperor Claudius II. The emperor believed that unwed men made better soldiers and outlawed all marriages. Saint Valentine, a priest, continued to perform secret ceremonies until his eventual capture and imprisonment. While imprisoned, it is said that the couples Valentine married came to visit, bringing flowers and notes—possible origins to our modern gifts. The last piece comes on the day of Valentine’s execution, February 14th. Having fallen in love with the jailer’s daughter, Valentine slipped her a note signed, “From your Valentine.”

A different story behind the holiday stems from the far-less romantic pagan holiday of Lupercalia. A fertility ritual performed sometime in February, the day started with an animal sacrifice. A procession followed in which women were whipped with the hides of the animals, believed to increase fertility. Men would then draw a woman’s name, her becoming his partner for the year and often beyond, many of the matches resulting in marriages. Lupercalia had no mention of love or romance, only fertility. It is believed that placing the holiday in February could have been the Church Christianizing Pagan traditions, though February 14th was declared Valentine’s Day by the Pope later into Christian rule of the Roman Empire.

The traditions we know today most likely started with the origins of the holiday in some varied form. The term “valentine” could have come from Saint Valentine’s letter to his love. However, the oldest known Valentine comes from Charles, Duke of Orleans. Imprisoned by the English after the Battle of Agincourt, the duke wrote a letter to his wife and addressed it to his “valentine.” 

The symbol of Cupid is believed to be derived from the Roman god of love, influencing the Christian cherubs and the image permeating modern Valentine’s Day. The gifting of flowers and cards may have grown from the story of Saint Valentine, and the tradition continued, becoming popular in the Victorian era. Cards were handmade, ornate, and often expensive, though they became more readily available with improved printing technology. When Valentine’s Day became popular in the U.K. in the 17th century, handwritten notes and small gifts or flowers were the customary exchange; the price or grandeur of the token given was not of consequence, and members of all social classes participated.

Today, Valentine’s Day has adopted a far more elaborate connotation. Handmade notes have been replaced with mass-produced cards filled with generic sentiments, poems, and flashy images. An estimated 15 million dozens of red roses and 360 million heart-shaped boxes of candy are bought every year. Forbes’ prediction for 2024 indicates that, on average, Americans plan to spend $185 per person, amounting to about $25.8 billion in total spending. This is an $8 increase over the trends of the last five years.

The question today revolves around whether the material focus of Valentine's Day has overrun the meaning and significance of its past. From the origins of martyrdom and tragic love stories, today's mainstream, media-driven, and consumerist-targeting holiday appears trivial. Big gestures and declarations of love had their final hurrah in the '90s rom-com, and fairytale romances live and die in your imagination.

Even so, Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated, with over 53% of consumers participating. Something about the pink-washed, heart-filled day still draws people to celebrate it. Galentines and Palentines Day have risen in popularity as alternatives to the romantic love focus, opening the market even more. On top of the red roses, heart-shaped candy boxes, and expensive jewelry and food purchased for your significant other, sellers push cutesy cards and gifts like stuffed animals and picnic services for you and your friends.

If you want to make a stand against its consumerist practices, try returning to the roots of the holiday. Write a note by hand or deliver a small bunch of flowers. There is no need to invest hundreds of dollars into the day. Just because everyone else is making up for neglecting their loved ones, that doesn’t mean you have to spend hundreds of dollars on a meal or buy an expensive piece of meaningless jewelry. The size and cost of the gift should not denote its value. The value comes from the meaning behind its bestowing. Choose something personal to give. Think of their interests and hobbies. Often, the best gift can be the gift of time. Spending intentional and dedicated time with someone can contain more meaning than any material possession could. And as a bonus, it doesn’t have to cost you any money. If the weather permits, stroll around the reservoir and have a good conversation. If your partner is interested in the arts, take them to one of the many shows that are happening on BC’s campus. Or, just curl up and watch one of their favorite movies. Anything can be special if it is done specifically with that person in mind. However altered the look of the holiday is from its past, its meaning should remain true at heart. Valentine’s Day is a day to share love and celebrate one another. It is a day to acknowledge that you care and that you are cared for.

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Coffee addicted ballerina with a nostalgic attachment to black and white movies and Frankie Valli.