The Meaning of Valentine’s Day: Past and Present

The Meaning of Valentine’s Day: Past and Present

Nina Dorighi and Grace McClung, Journalists

Valentine’s day is an age old holiday meant to celebrate love and togetherness. While most people are unclear on its origin, our modern day attitude towards it is and the true meaning of it is often debated. Some people love the holiday and participate in all of it’s festivities, while others take a more cynical approach and think it’s not worth all of the attention. Valentine’s day is unique because there is a lot of flexibility with how you can choose to celebrate it, and despite all of the opinions, everyone is able to interpret the holiday in their own way

Valentine’s Day, like most holidays, has been around for centuries, although not celebrated quite like it is today. Believe it or not, Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been a sappy-sweet holiday for passing out greetings cards and goodies; in fact, the day we know it has only recently been associated with candy hearts and love. The holiday gets its name from Saint Valentine who, according to sources, is two distinct historical characters, both of which supposedly healed a child while imprisoned. Surprisingly, this is one of the few facts historians can agree on. The rest of the holiday and its traditional roots is pretty much a controversial mystery. Of course, like all holidays we celebrate, Valentine’s Day stems from religion, probably from Christian and ancient Rome tradition. One legend contends that St. Valentine served as a priest during third century Rome. When Rome’s Emperor, Claudius II, decided that single men made better soldiers than men with wives and children, he banned young men from marrying. Valentine saw the injustice of the Emperor’s decision and defied his leader, using his priest status to marry young lovers in secret. Another legend says that Valentine was not a priest, but a prisoner who sent the first “valentine” to the young girl—some people believe his jailor’s daughter—that he fell in love with. Before dying in prison, legend has it that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine” which is where we get the expression from today. And even more stories claim that Valentine was killed for trying to help Christians escape Roman prisons where they were being tortured. Whatever version of Valentine is true, there is one thing he had in common in all legends: He was an appealing, heroic, and romantic figure remembered for his acts of love and aid during times of injustice and difficulties.

As for the date, people also don’t exactly know why we celebrate Valentine’s Day on the 14th of February. Some believe it is the date of Valentine’s death and/or burial while others think this date was decided by the Christian Church in order to christianize the Pagan festival of Lupercalia. This festival, according to HISTORY, was when “all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.” While this may have been where the idea of love came from, the existence of this festival and its impact on Valentine’s Day as well as the role Christianity played in it remains unknown. You also can’t forget about Cupid. Unsurprisingly, the Roman god, Cupid,  comes from Greek mythology and the Greek god of love, Eros. Also unsurprisingly, Cupid’s birth is another subject of debate. The most supported version is that, according to Greek Archaic poets, Cupid began as Eros, a romantic immortal that manipulated the emotions of gods and men alike and used golden arrows to stir up love between people. By the emergence of the Roman Empire, Eros turned into the god Cupid, who later turned into the chubby baby we know today.

But however shrouded in mystery the day of love is, historians are clear on a few things: Valentine’s Day isn’t complete without the affectionate notes and greeting cards, or Valentines, but written Valentines didn’t appear until after 1400. Charles Duke of Orleans was the first writer of a Valentine (with the exception of the possibility of Valentine’s written letter) in the form of a poem to his wife from prison in 1415. As far as we know, it took many years for the ideas of Valentines to take off, however. It wasn’t until the mid 18th century that friends or lovers began exchanging small notes or tokens of love. By 1900, thanks to the printing press and other technological advancements, printed greeting cards took the place of written letters and notes. And by today, Valentine’s Day is one of the largest holidays for greeting-card production; according to The Greeting Card Association, 145 million Valentine cards are sent every single year, making February 14th the second largest card-sending holiday after Christmas. Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the UK, France, and Australia as well as the US, and characterized by chocolate, flowers, hearts, and of course, love

A lot of the criticism on Valentine’s day comes from the materialistic aspect of the holiday. It can be tempting to see all of the consumerism involved and point out that the holiday is meant for money to be spent in order to prove love to someone. According to the National Retail Federation, the average consumer will spend $161.96 for Valentine’s Day. This is an absurd number considering the holiday is meant to be a celebration of love for each other, not for materialistic goods. In modern times, the holiday is based around consumerism with motifs of chocolate, hearts, fancy restaurants, and teddy bears. And the pressures of spending all this energy and effort to express love is frowned upon by many. “Modern love is governed by a romantic-industrial complex…that profits by enforcing and then exploiting romantic desires and insecurities,” says executive Teen Vogue editor, Samhita Mukhopadhyay. These complaints are supposedly not only dominated by the negative views on capitalism, but also by the people who don’t want to confront their own love life. If anything, Valentine’s day serves as the ultimate showcase of other people’s success and happiness in relationships, leaving a lot of opportunity for comparison to your life. “When people say, ‘I hate Valentine’s Day,’ what they often mean is, ‘I hate being forced to take inventory of the quality and volume of love in my life,’” says Alana Massey. The holiday allows for a lot of cynicism around romance in general. South student, Lilly Perez, says, “You should love your significant other all of the days of the year,” bringing up points about the performativity of the holiday. A lot of people believe the holiday is unnecessary and simply built around making money in order to meet a certain societal standard of what love expression should look like.

It is easy to bash the holiday based on its materialistic take on expressing love, but people have many different interpretations that can alter this negative perspective. A lot of people have this idea of Valentine’s day as a day exclusively for celebrating one’s significant other, however, the holiday is intended to celebrate a very universal experience: love. In all shapes and forms, it’s meant to celebrate those who are important in your life. While a lot of the holiday is marketed towards romantic love, different types of love are just as important. Those who enjoy the holiday oftentimes take it as an opportunity to show appreciation for friends, family, and even themselves. One example of this is Leslie Knopes’ “Galentine’s day” as displayed  in Parks and recreation. In the show, Leslie takes the day February 13 to celebrate the women in her life she cares about. While it’s not the typical way to celebrate the holiday, it is an example of how different interpretations can be more inclusive to everyone—romantic interest or not. Aside from the meaning of Valentine’s day, there are aspects of the holiday that are fun. Junior Kali Mick says, “I like the candy and expression of love,” while Lily Perez states, “It has a comforting color scheme.” It’s a holiday that brings back memories from elementary school when kids would decorate shoe boxes and hand out candy to peers. It seems the negative interpretation of the holiday comes later in life when you start to look past the fun accessories and activities and dive deeper into the meaning. Either way, the holiday serves as an opportunity to express love to loved ones, and if you don’t take the opportunity, at least the decorations are pretty to look at. As South junior, Miles Borgieous, says, “If you love love, good for you. If you don’t, good for you. Just appreciate the people around you in the best way possible.”

Every February 14th, we are bombarded with pink and red balloons, candy, jewelry, decorations, and cards. Though several people despise this arguably materialistic and cheesy holiday for its pressure to perform, Valentine’s Day is at its core a time to celebrate love and each other. Like most holidays, we often get lost in the fluff—and stuff—that comes with it, and we forget what it is really about. We may not know where this wacky day originated or who exactly St. Valentine was, but we can appreciate Valentine’s sacrifices for love and justice. This year especially, it is important to be grateful for loved ones whether you show it with candy hearts or not.