You may be sitting here thinking “Ugh, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Another holiday created by the greeting card industry” and you may be surprised to hear that you’re not *totally* wrong, but there’s more to it than a conspiracy launched by Hallmark to steal dollars and break hearts.
While American’s drop close to $30 billion a year on this holiday, it wasn’t created by marketers. Valentine’s day goes way, way back. Back before the stories of our grandparents courting each other on Valentines day in 1955. Back before what’s-her-name purposely didn’t give you a Valentine in fourth grade even though she gave everyone else one (I hold no grudges). Rather, it dates to ancient Rome. Let’s take a trip.
Ancient Rome was a super volatile place with violence serving as both punishment AND entertainment (and you thought watching The Bachelor was horrible). Sometime around 270 A.D., Rome witnessed the very public execution of a priest named Valentine. Why you ask? Well, this gruesome story actually has a romantic angle. Around this time, the emperor of Rome actually banned marriage. He thought marriage and family was keeping men from joining the army, and what was Rome without its Army back then?
Valentine, who was a priest and clearly a romantic, continued performing marriages in secret. Being that this was Rome and defying the emperor never ended well, it led to Valentine being sentenced to death by beheading. The story goes that before his very public death, he left a letter in his jail cell that was signed “From Your Valentine” and someone that worked at Hallmark in 272 A.D. was like, this is such a great idea. (that second part I still need to validate).
So why February 14th? Well that part is a little murkier. Valentine was eventually recognized as a martyr, and for sainthood, becoming Saint Valentine. At some point, the anniversary of his death aligned with another ancient Roman feast – Lupercalia, which was February the 15th. I can spare you the research of Lupercalia and assure you its ancient sacrifices had very little to do with modern day Valentine’s Day. Rather, it was centuries later that the Pope decreed Lupercalia and all of its dark practices be replaced with a day of observation for St. Valentine, and all he did for love (and probably more accurately – the church).
There was obviously a LOT that happened between then and today when you’re sending your Valentine’s Day eCards or a meme about hating Valentine’s Day. Most notably, the religious observation of February 14th came to America around the same time as Europe was exporting settlers here along with their religious beliefs (1700’s-ish). According to the History Channel, one of the practices that came to our shores via England, was “for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes” in observation of February 14th. I think you see where we’re going here.
From that tradition, bore good old American entrepreneurism. Esther Howland received a greeting card in the 1800’s and instantly recognized that there was a lucrative market to be built upon this holiday and greeting cards in general. She created cards that, to this day, still lend creative elements to the modern-day valentine. Lace-fringed box of mediocre chocolates? Yup, that was Esther and her lace in 1800-something. She built an empire on the hearts of Americans, and husbands everywhere racing out to CVS at 8:00 because “they forgot”. Today, she is known as The Mother of the American Valentine.
This year, according to the NRF, Americans everywhere will break spending records out of pure obligation. Collectively we are expected to spend, on average, $196 on V-Day gifts, and 27% (including me) will spend money on valentines day gifts for their pets. You can read all about this enlightening day of spending here and feel better knowing that there are millions of others spending spending money on Hallmark cards and candy.
I hope you learned a little history today, and I do really hope you all enjoy your Valentine’s Day, especially since it falls on a Friday this year and literally any holiday is better when it occurs on the weekend. I will be home with my partner and Marla the Bulldog eating pizza in sweatpants and *maybe* enjoying some chocolate and wine.
Happy Valentine’s Day everyone…even the girl who didn’t give me a card in fourth grade even though literally everyone else got one.