Blind dates and goat hides: the bizzare origins of Valentine’s Day

Romance was a $19.7 billion industry in 2015. At least, it was last Valentine’s Day according to the National Retail Federation.
What we know as Valentine’s Day only recently became a celebration of love. The earliest traces of Valentine’s Day can be found in ancient Rome, in the pagan festival of Lupercalia, an event that took place every year from Feb. 13-15. This pastoral celebration’s ostensible purpose was to rid the city of evil spirits and to promote fertility.

But as with many Roman festivities, it tended to get a little wild. Men would sacrifice goats and dogs to the gods and then run through the streets, whipping women as they passed with strips of the hides. This practice was believed to increase fertility among young women. There was also a blind date system in place for the festival. Men would draw the names of women out of a jar, and the two would be coupled for the rest of Lupercalia.

The Pagan festival of Lupercalia bears little resemblance to the Valentine’s Day with which we are now familiar. This is partially due to the erasure of Pagan practices by the Catholic church. In the time of Emperor Claudius II of Rome, there were two men named Valentine. Both were executed on Feb. 14 of different years, and both sometime in the third century. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14.

St. Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia were then combined into one holiday by the church in the fifth century. This new St. Valentine’s Day still remained somewhat as a drunken revelry like Lupercalia, but over time and under the influence of the Catholic church it became a more modest affair.

In Elizabethan England the holiday finally began to take on its modern form and meaning. The tie between romance and St. Valentine’s Day was established in the works of the most popular poets of the age, Shakespeare and Chaucer. During this time period it became customary for people to create paper cards and deliver them to their loved ones to celebrate.

The Industrial Revolution saw the beginnings of mass produced valentines, and the beginning of the commercialization of the holiday. In Kansas City, Missouri in the year 1916, Hallmark Cards began production on their first cards.

Although Valentine’s Day has a long cultural history, it is increasingly referred to as a “Hallmark Holiday.” The term is used describe any holiday that exists primarily for commercial purposes. Look no further than the third Saturday in October, or “Sweetest Day.” This holiday was invented by 12 confectioners in Cleveland, Ohio to promote candy sales.  

Today, Sweetest Day is still celebrated in the Great Lakes region. Hallmark offers more than 70 Sweetest Day cards, 80 percent of which have a “love or romance” theme. It also offers other Sweetest Day themed items, such as chocolates, picture frames and Hallmark Gift Books (whatever those are?).

It is hard to argue that consumerism is not a huge part of how we celebrate holidays in the U.S. According to the National Retail Federation, holiday sales have increased every year since 2008. In 2015, Americans spent a total of $626.1 billion on holidays, which was a three percent increase from 2014. Many people argue that our propensity to throw money at Hallmark around the holidays strips the holiday of its intended meaning.

Anna Jarvis was annoyed that most American holidays were honoring male Americans and their achievements. So in 1908, she held the first ever Mother’s Day celebration. After a successful letter-writing campaign, the holiday went national. However, she was less than pleased with the attention it received by corporations.

By the time Congress approved the holiday in 1914, Jarvis was openly opposed to it. She focused her criticism on the people who were profiting from her day: florists, candy makers, and greeting-card companies. Her intent had been for the holiday to be a quiet day for people to visit their mothers and to go to church if they were so inclined.

But the day was quickly hijacked by capitalism. The same thing can be safely said about major religious holidays like Christmas and Easter, and even holidays with long traditions such as Valentine’s Day. Businesses would have to be dumb not to take advantage of holiday consumerism.

But does it really matter that someone is profiting? Why should the fact that Hallmark makes money on Valentine’s Day tarnish it? If someone is telling you they love you, be it with words, or by giving you gifts, they are still telling you they love you. Valentine’s Day is a day about making one another feel loved. Planet earth is host to a lot of horrible things. Climate change, the refugee crisis, Donald Trump’s hair. Is this really worth complaining about?