Valentine’s Day just passed, and the most romantic thing I did was blast the remix of Beyonce’s Flawless as I sang along at the top of my lungs and drove 15 over the speed limit on my way to treat myself to Thai food (it’s called self-love). Although this holiday is supposed to celebrate love, most people that are not in a monogamous romantic relationship spend the day feeling sad, lonely, and sorry for themselves. Not only does Valentine’s Day make single folk feel excluded, but it also strains romantic relationships by creating unrealistic expectations for couples to fulfill. But why do we place so much value on Hallmark cards, chocolate hearts, scented candles, and some roses? Where did this holiday even come from and why does it make most of us feel so sh*tty?
The real story has little to do with romance or love. Some say Valentine’s Day originates from fertility rituals during the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia that also took place in mid-February. Priests of the Lupercus would take off their clothes and slaughter goats in the cave that legend says Romulus and Remus were nursed by a wolf in. Then, they would proceed to beat naked women with the skin of the slaughtered goats. This symbolic beating was believed to increase fertility so most women willingly endured it. There was also a matchmaking ritual that paired men and the selected women together for the duration of the festival–or longer. However, others say Valentine’s Day developed from the martyrdom of its namesake, Valentine, who is said to have been imprisoned and executed for secretly marrying couples under the rule of Emperor Claudius, a totalitarian leader who was strictly against marriage. According to the myth, Valentine slipped his lover a note that said “from your Valentine” through the prison bars on the way to his execution. Eventually, the Catholic Church honored Valentine by declaring him a Saint and denoting February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day. But how did these events centuries ago transform into the commercialized holiday millions across the world view as the day couples show their love for each other by exchanging gifts?
The truth is, we cannot know for sure. With the emergence of capitalism a couple centuries later, companies seized every opportunity to make a profit, and Valentine’s Day was no exception. Bolstered by heteronormativity, gender roles, and societal pressures to find “the one” and to start a monogamous, usually heterosexual romantic relationship, companies did not have to advertise long before the public had bought into the commercialized, Hallmark version of Valentine’s Day that exists today.