Originally, Valentine’s day was celebrated in commemoration of the Christian Martyr, Valentine. As the Patron Saint of epileptics and beekeepers, the official explanation given for this catholic canonization is the persecution he endured at the hands of Claudius II Gothicus. After refusing to deny the existence of Christ by the emperor’s command, he was executed in 269 AD.
When the historical facts are laid on the table in such a fashion, it is extremely difficult to see where all the hearts and flowers came from. For in the modern-day, the collective anticipation for February 14th has very little to do with catholic suffrage.
It is only when you begin to delve into the legends surrounding Saint Valentine that the holiday festivities begin to make sense. In a romantically apt fashion, the mythos of love surrounding Valentine’s day has its roots in fable, not fact.
Before facing his execution Saint Valentine supposedly cured his jailer’s blind daughter, with embellished retellings claiming that he wrote her a note signed ‘from your valentine’ once the miracle had been completed. Clearly, this historical figure has a flair for the dramatic.
To add greater colour to his character, other traditions state that Valentine not only refused to yield to the emperor’s demands, but also acted in direct defiance of his orders. During the 2nd Century, Emperor Claudius had placed restrictions on marriage: soldiers were forbidden from wedding their partners, as it was believed that romance would distract them from their endeavours on the battlefield. Saint Valentine secretly married military couples regardless, with the hope of sparing the husbands from the evils of war.
To recap: Saint Valentine penned a note whilst in jail which started the tradition of February love letters, refused to submit to discriminatory laws and placed love above all during a time that systematically denied some the right to marriage.
This catholic saint was rebellious as hell.
Now we can see where the essence of Valentine’s day emerged from.
However, in a quick turn of events, the legend behind Valentine’s day now seems incompatible with its modern celebration for a completely different reason. Valentine’s historic conviction in the inherent strength of love seems to shed a light upon the current artificiality of February the 14th, painting a very unattractive picture of how commercialised it has become. Artificial gift-giving is now the norm for the day of romance: shops are filled to the brim with red and pink trimmed pieces, with little thought residing behind these mass-produced objects.
In her book Why Love Hurts, the sociologist Illouz has linked capitalist consumerism to the modernist phenomenon of ‘romantic misery’. She claims that this culture has encouraged us to become ‘shoppers’ not only of flowers and chocolates, but of people themselves. Along with the Christmas period, Valentine’s day encourages individuals to compare the merits of their own partners to others using pre-determined consumerist criteria: people advertise their relationships on social media by posting pictures of their love, which subsequently gives their followers an idyllic standard to measure their own partner against. In a world of competitive pricing and constant output, Valentine’s day has unfortunately evolved to produce a sensation akin to productivity guilt; individuals do not feel as though they contribute enough to their romantic relationships, whilst also feeling the absence of material symbols of love which others receive during the holiday.
Valentine’s day has become a marketing campaign, designed with the intention of making love feel inadequate if it is not ‘proven’ through the act of gifting purchasable goods. Even the advertisements for these goods are constructed to make couples feel less-than; if you do not fit the mould of straight, white and wealthy, it is unlikely that you will see your relationship represented within the ‘his and hers’ commercials at all.
In light of all this alienation, it’s hard not to feel disenchanted with February the 14th. Within recent years there has been an increase of couples who have binned off the holiday entirely, wanting to disassociate their relationship from the forces which seemingly want only to demean it. Whilst this is a completely valid method of combating the valentine’s day blues, it does also seem a shame. After all, the legends depicting Saint Valentine’s enduring refusal to surrender to the Emperor’s governmental restrictions not only inspired the holiday, but contain a level of subversiveness that could be interestingly applied in the modern-day.
How do we defy the forces which distract from the true essence of Valentine’s day? How do we fight our own metaphorical Claudius II Gothicus, the modernist ‘romantic misery’?
Maybe the answer lies in a return to roots. The thoughtful actions of a Saint are what began the celebration of the day of love; it is possible that to thoughtful actions we must return.
There are no definitive answers, only personal victories. If you are to take away anything from this article, let it be this: whether you celebrate February the 14th or not, I hope you check in with yourself today. Look after yourself and the ones you love, and be kind to each other. Whether you’re going out for a romantic meal, spending the day with a platonic valentine (a brilliant concept, if you ask me – romantic love is not the only form which deserves a celebration!) or simply practising some self-care, I hope you can return to the original essence of Valentine’s day.
Because let’s face it: regardless of being a literal saint, Valentine was pretty badass.