Millions of us around the world participate in Valentine’s Day. But how many of us know its origins? How it evolved to a commercialised expression of love, or how our celebration rituals are evolving now?
Valentine’s Day is traced back to a pagan festival held during mid-February in ancient Rome in which priests would sacrifice goats and dogs, and young men would use the skins to gently slap crops and women to bring fertility in the coming year. The festival closed with matchmaking, where young, single women would place their names in an urn for pairing with a bachelor.
There were also the various legends of St Valentinus, who was beheaded and celebrated as a martyr each subsequent February. These celebrations initially had little to do with love, until medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer made the link between St Valentinus celebrations and the bird-mating season.
Chaucer inspired nobles at the time to send love letters during the bird-mating season; eventually this led to the celebration being embraced by England, and 14 February becoming the day to write romantic letters to loved ones.
These days, Hallmark can pen loved-up sentiments for you; the mass-production of cards made the holiday easier for clueless romantics and increased the popularity of Valentine’s Day even further.
Combined with improvements and reduced cost of the United Kingdom postal system during the industrial revolution, more and more people participated in the exchange of Valentine cards – estimates show the number of cards circulated quadrupled between 1840 and 1860.
Chocolates and flowers have since became popular symbols of love, with modern companies such as Cadbury and Hershey’s capitalising on the exchange of gifts.
A time to splurge
Increasingly, Valentine’s Day has been commercialised and a significant occasion for consumers to splurge.
Australian romantics spent a collective $528 million on celebrations and gifts last year. While men have been more likely to present gifts to women, the number of women spending on items for men has increased each year.
Average Valentine’s Day spend also varies between generations, with 26 to 35-year-olds tending to lavish their partners the most, followed by 18 to 25-year-olds.
But not everyone is smelling the roses.
A quarter of Australians in a 2018 survey reported no plans to celebrate Valentine’s Day, due to associated costs. In fact, there's been a marked increase in anti-Valentine attitudes among some consumers.
These sentiments are reflected in paid events such as an anti-Valentine’s Day girl’s night out that explicitly forbids romantic discussion in favour of celebrating friendship, and an anti-Valentine’s Day chocolate workshop that turns the classic gift of chocolate into a singles-oriented indulgence.
Valentine’s Day backlash is being felt outside Australia, too.
In Japan, celebrations of the day are usually significant, with retail stores often hosting dedicated Valentine’s Day exhibitions. But this year, Japanese women are bucking the tradition of gifting male co-workers chocolate. Seen by many as an abuse of power and harassment, some companies have banned the practice.
Even zoos are getting into the anti-Valentine act.
The El Paso Zoo in Texas has garnered brief internet fame for its Valentine’s Day event this year, inviting people to name a cockroach after an ex, which will then be fed to the zoo’s meerkats on the big day as a celebration of spite.
Closer to home and in a similar vein, the Wild Life Sydney Zoo is running a Valentine’s Day raffle, calling for donations in exchange for the chance to have a highly venomous brown snake named after an equally venomous ex.
Valentine’s Day has had changing cultural significance during the past 1000 years, and will almost certainly continue to evolve in the future. Pro or anti-Valentine’s, the occasion is still good news for retailers, as consumers are still spending in the name of love – even if it's on naming snakes.