It’s that time of year again… heart-covered greetings cards dominate the shelves, boxes of chocolates become a symbol of affection, and florists across the country have their annual vacations paid for by love-stricken partners clamouring for the last bunch of roses.
Whether you absolutely love Valentines’ Day or simply view it as another evil marketing ploy propagated by faceless corporations (aw, romantic!), its origins are rarely talked about. Why do we celebrate Valentines’ Day? How did this romantic / commercialised annual display of affection and heart-shaped chocolates come into being, and how has it morphed into the holiday we know it to be today? As a gift voucher company, we at Experience Days are interested in the rituals surrounding holidays and gift-giving occasions, and the human ways we celebrate these occasions. That’s why we’ve decided to delve into Valentines’ Day’s fascinating – and somewhat sad – history, and explore whether or not the day should be celebrated here in this brave new decade.
The thing about ancient history is we don’t really know very much about it – funny how that works, right?
Valentine’s Day, as most of you probably already know, is named after St. Valentine, who was a Catholic Priest in 3rd century Rome. Historians are pretty sure there was more than one St. Valentine knocking about at this time, and aren’t 100% on which of the many stories of the priest(s) are true – but over time, the various narrative threads have tangled together into the rich and messy tapestry we know today. And what a messy tapestry it is – rich with stories of secret marriage vows, martyrdom and sacrificial goat rituals. Yes, really. Hold on tight for that last one.
Cast your mind back to Ancient Rome, around about the year 260. We believe the technical term for this period in history is ‘a really, very, properly long long time ago’, when Rome was ruled by Claudius II. Legend has it – and just as a warning, please mentally start all of these sentences with ‘legend has it’ – Claudius II was a staunch Pagan who banned the Christian practice of marriage for soldiers, believing that the frivolous act of committing your life to another like-minded Roman distracted soldiers from their duties.
Enter St. Valentine. A tricksy Catholic priest, Valentine wasn’t standing for any of this two-consentual-adults-who-love-each-other-not-being-able-to-get-married business. He took it upon himself to conduct marriage ceremonies in secret, away from the prying gaze of Claudius.
Happy days, right? ...Wrong. Very wrong.
St. Valentine was discovered, and Claudius ordered that he be put to death. (Jeez, these Roman emperors… no sense of romance.)
Another story goes that Valentine was put to death for helping Christians escape from prison. This is where the tradition of Valentine’s Day cards started… yes, back in a squalid little Roman prison in the 3rd century, far from the brightly coloured gift shops of today. Allegedly, St. Valentine gave a note of affection to a young woman (possibly the jailor’s daughter, yikes) declaring his love, and signing it ‘From your Valentine’… hence the way we sign Valentine's Day cards today.
Valentine’s Day is lovely and everything, but wouldn’t it be nicer to have all these romantic boat rides, picnics, and walks along the beach in the summertime? Why are we being subjected to declaring our love and affection in the middle of stark, drizzly February?
Some historians think Valentine’s Day is celebrated on the 14th February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, while others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s Feast Day in the middle of the month to add a touch of Christianity to the whole affair. The affair in question is the Pagan celebration of Lupercalia.
"What is Lupercalia?" I hear you ask.
Are you sure you want to know…? Because this is where the goat sacrifice stuff comes in. You’re sure? Okay…
Lupercalia was a fertility festival, held in honour of Roman fertility god Lupercus.
Sacrifices were performed by Luperci, a group of Roman priests who had some very interesting ideas about how to get a lady pregnant. Starting with some male goats and a dog, they'd perform a ritual sacrifice.
(Just a warning for those with a weak stomach - maybe skip this next bit.)
Once the animals had been sacrificed, the heads of the Luperci were smeared with their blood and removed with a piece of milk-soaked wool. Next, they'd run around naked whipping women with the hide of the sacrificed goats. ARE YOU FEELING ROMANTIC YET?
Many women welcomed the whipping, believing that being struck with the goat hide was a symbol of fertility. Listen, I'm just gonna say it: Roman times were weird. The festival was outlawed at the end of the 5th century, after being deemed 'Un-Christian'. (Fair enough.)
Pope Gelasius later declared 14th February St. Valentine’s Day, but it wasn’t until much later that the day became associated with love. During the Middle Ages, the French and English believed that 14th February marked the beginning of the bird’s mating season, which pushed the idea that the day was romantic. Yeah, you know, romance. In the ages when people did their business in buckets and then threw it out windows. What? We’ve got to start somewhere.
Medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer – which, incidentally, might be the worst way to start a sentence at a party – liked to re-write history himself. In his 1375 poem Parliament of Foules, he links love to St. Valentine’s Feast Day. No recorded association of these two things can be found prior to this poem, and from that point forth, the two have become inextricably linked. Who said poetry doesn't affect change?! You go, Chaucer. (Also not a great thing to say at a party.)
Okay; Roman saints and emperors, sacrificial goat rituals, Geoffrey Chaucer poetry, secret marriage ceremonies… that’s all great and everything. We need historical context to understand the rituals and holidays we blindly celebrate each year, but with that said: Should we celebrate Valentine’s Day? Let’s think about some of the pros and cons of this annual celebration …
I’ll say it again: Roman Saints and Emperors, sacrificial goat rituals, Geoffrey Chaucer poetry, secret marriage ceremonies. And that’s all before 1376. If this whirlwind of a romantic, bloody and poetic history isn’t enough to make you want to celebrate a holiday, what will? (…I guess maybe chocolate?)
For parents, or couples who are constantly busy with work, spontaneity can feel like a thing of the past. Sometimes, a fixed date on the calendar is a necessary encouragement to go ahead and book that table, unearth that fancy dress, and have a proper date night. What have the two of you been talking about doing for months, but never gotten around to? That new fusion restaurant where they cook squids in their own ink and none of the waiters ever smile? The new cocktail bar where they make the best margaritas? Or just the same trusty pizza place you’ve been going to for the past five years, but haven’t had a chance to enjoy lately? Whatever you want to do, it’s nice to have an excuse to clear the calendar and go out. (...And drink lots of champagne.)
Okay, so maybe you’re not exactly a heart-shaped-chocolate-box kinda couple. If your aesthetic leans less towards heart shaped things and more towards round shaped things… like pizza… you can still express your affection in your own unique way. Hate the formality of getting dressed up for a night out? Have a night in instead; takeaway, pyjamas and a film. Whatever you love to do, Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to show your own unique version of love.
“Another soul-sucking corporate holiday, hell-bent on draining my already barren wallet of what little funds I have left to feed myself, my partner and our small collection of house plants, who only subsist on water and sunlight, but still…?!” we hear you cry. Don’t worry, we get it: It seems like as soon as you’ve recovered from the pocket-draining ordeal of buying everyone’s Christmas gifts, another holiday rolls around that demands you to shell out a hefty chunk of your paycheck in order to demonstrate your love. Well, not on OUR watch! If you can’t afford to buy your partner a Valentine’s Day gift, it’s a great excuse to get creative. Whether you’re an expert baker who whips up a batch of cookies soft and gooey enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the most hardened criminal, or just great at getting crafty with art materials, use any creative skill to your advantage. Make your partner a thoughtful meal, the cookie of dreams, or a hand-crafted card that’s unique to them.
If you’re single and feel excluded by the lovey-dovey coupledom of Valentine’s Day without a partner to buy a gift for, use the holiday as an excuse to treat yourself. You don’t even need to leave the house! Pour yourself a glass of your tipple of choice (wine, beer, or the tears of past lovers who have wronged you), log on to your favourite online shop, and make it rain.
Alternatively if you don’t have the funds to make it drizzle, much less rain, then treat yourself to an extravagance you might not otherwise indulge in, like a long soak in the tub, or a binge of that awful TV show that you try not to watch because you’re pretty sure it rots your brain, but can’t look away from because the cast are so good looking… (We’re not talking about “You” on Netflix, and you can’t prove otherwise.)
If you’d rather not be alone on Valentine’s Day, gather some single friends for a group celebration. Look, this isn’t the first time we’ll quote Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, and it won’t be the last – so you may as well get used to it:
Now, we don’t want you thinking we’re being exclusionary here. Despite its name, Galentine’s Day is open to ALL genders. Gather your single friends and celebrate platonic love!
Okay, we’ve heard the pro’s of Valentine’s Day, but we’re nothing if not balanced, so let’s even the playing field a bit by exploring some con’s…
Like most holidays, Valentine’s Day has become less about the original message (in this case, the message is “be sneaky if you’re a Catholic priest in 3rd century home ruled over by Claudius II and don’t fall in love with the jailor’s daughter if you’re trying to break fugitives out of said jail”) and more about the needless over-production and acquisition of material goods – or, as we believe it’s technically known, “tat”. Why do you need a teddy bear with a heart stitched onto its paws, or a cheesy greetings card created by some faceless corporation, to show your partner that you love them? We’re pretty sure most people who are gifted with a mass-produced Valentine’s Day card throw it in the bin within a month… creating more landfill and waste!
An occasion specifically designed to celebrate the love of happy couples is bound to make some singles feel left out.
Yes, we have gone on about our lord and saviour Leslie Knope and the merits of Galentine’s Day… but what about the people who don’t feel like celebrating their singledom? What about widows who might be recently bereaved, or people who have been broken up with? Even Galentine’s Day might not be enough to quell a broken heart, and the constant reminders of couples and love in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day can’t be easy to see for those who’d rather not be alone.
For those who are in a relationship, Valentine’s Day could be seen as one of two things. One: a perfectly innocent excuse to buy your partner some nice chocolates, or two: a poor attempt to show affection on one day out of the year, when you might be failing to do so on the other 364 days. If your partner can only get it together to be attentive and loving on 14th February each year, maybe we shouldn’t glorify it as a romantic holiday, and instead think about why we need the calendar to tell us to show our partner we care.
It kind of goes without saying that the mass-production of cards, stuffed animals and other novelty tat is bad for the environment – but we’ll make the point anyway. In fact, it’s not just the obvious stuff you might think that has a negative environmental impact – a recent study by Vox found that even the production of roses on this annual holiday is a culprit. Surely we could make a positive difference to the environment if we axed this holiday altogether? (Oops, we’re starting to sound a bit like Claudius now…)
What do you think? Corporate holiday, or touching celebration of love? A fascinating exploration of the way we address love throughout history, or an excuse for Hallmark to manufacture saucy greetings cards?
Well, if you’re one of the many who are celebrating Valentine’s Day this year, be sure to do it right! Follow our tips below to have the perfect day.
You don’t need to spend over your budget to make your partner feel special. Treat them to a favourite chocolate bar they usually don’t buy for themselves, cook them their favourite meal, or simply spend quality time in their company.
Just because it’s Valentine’s Day, doesn’t mean you need to subscribe to the usual onslaught of hearts, roses and chocolates. Think about what your partner truly loves and reflect that back to them.
Now look, are we another corporation looking to profit from the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day? … Well, yes, but we’re a really nice one, promise. And although we might be biased, we happen to believe that ultimately, the best way to treat someone and show them you care is not with material goods, but meaningful experiences.
If you’d rather not burden them with more stuff they don’t need, treat them to a day out… we happen to know a couple of good ones:
Whether you have four left feet between you or are always the centre of attention on the dance floor, there’s no denying that learning something new together is great for a relationship – and on Valentine’s Day, what better thing is there to learn than how to dance? Widely considered to be one of the most intimate and sensual of dances, the Tango makes the perfect dance to learn as a couple. This private one-hour dance class in Cape Town is taught by a seasoned Tango dancer and teacher, who gained experience in the late-night milongas of Buenos Aires and offers a uniquely holistic approach to dance – perfect for beginners!
For those couples who prefer a more active Valentine’s Day gift, you can’t go wrong with a canoe tour of the Sundays River. This peaceful four-hour adventure takes you on a journey through the river, taking in the beautiful examples of local wildlife as you float gently along in your canoe.
… Or maybe you just want to relax? There’s never a bad excuse for a pamper day, but a Valentine’s Day outing might be one of the best. This luxurious spa day treats one lucky couple to full use of the spa’s facilities, which include a heated indoor pool, Swiss shower, steam room, and Himalayan salt room. During your visit, you’ll enjoy a rejuvenating Middle Eastern mud ritual - complete with tropical rain shower - and a classic, sixty-minute facial. These are followed by tension-relieving foot, and back, neck and shoulder massages, designed to ease the stresses of a demanding day-to-day. Aaaand relax…
… And that concludes our guide to the history, pro’s and con’s of Valentine’s Day. Whether you’re a hopeless romantic or a complete cynic, we hope you enjoyed learning a little more about this fascinating holiday. What do you think of Valentine’s Day? Let us know your opinions in the comments section.
If you fall firmly into the ‘romantic’ camp and are still hunting for the perfect gift, don’t forget to browse our full range of experience gifts here – perfect for Valentine’s Day. Celebrate with your partner, your best friend, your family or your dog… make us and Leslie Knope proud!