It was Liz Lemon, the protagonist of “30 Rock,” who noted that the word “lovers” really tends to bum people out — “unless it’s between the words ‘meat’ and ‘pizza.’ ” But it’s February and lovers are everywhere, celebrating the holiday we love to hate. Valentine’s Day occupies a strange space in American culture. The occasion is defined by its strong traditions, but few of us know anything about where they came from. When it comes to this celebration of love, misinformation abounds.
Valentine's Day was invented by greeting card companies.
“Valentine’s Day only exists to sell greeting cards” — it’s the complaint of cynical ex-boyfriends everywhere. In the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Jim Carrey’s character, Joel, says the holiday was “invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” Even the myth-busting website Snopes.com has a page discussing this common trope.
As it turns out, Valentine’s Day — and Valentine’s Day cards — existed long before commercialization. The Victorians exchanged tokens, notes and handmade cards on Feb. 14. The tradition really took off when postal infrastructure improved in the mid-19th century. The English penny post made sending romantic notes both affordable and anonymous, meaning the otherwise stuffy Victorians were free to express risque flirtation or to mail what the London Review called “scandalous productions, vilely drawn, wretchedly engraved, and hastily dabbed over with staring colours.” Corporate interests were quick to capitalize on Victorian traditions. In 1868 Cadbury was the first to put chocolates in a heart-shaped box. Mass-manufactured greeting cards were introduced in the United States in 1849 and sold by Hallmark in 1913.
A 2015 survey found that 66 percent of respondents agreed that “the consumerism surrounding Valentine’s Day has ruined the romance.” But that didn’t stop Americans from spending a record $20.1 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2018, with an astounding $751 million of that devoted to gifts for their truest loves: their pets.
Saint Valentine set the tone for this lovers' holiday.
It’s natural to assume that there must be some historical connection between romantic love and the man named Saint Valentine. According to ThoughtCo., “he was sent to jail” for performing illegal weddings, and Get Fed, a Catholic website, says that “his intercession was called upon by lovers and engaged and married couples after his entrance into eternal life.” Even priests use the holiday as an opportunity to imagine what kind of advice the saint would offer today’s married couples.
The truth is much less romantic. According to Lisa Bitel, a historian of Christianity, “our modern holiday is a beautiful fiction.” Bitel points out that there were several 3rd-century saints named Valentine, at least one of whom was decapitated on Feb. 14. Most likely, the feast of Saint Valentine commemorates the martyrdom of two men, but while we have some idea of when and how they died, historians know almost nothing about their lives. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints pulls no punches on the subject: “The connection of lovers with St. Valentine, with all its consequences for the printing and retailing industries, is one of the less likely results of the cult of the Roman martyrs.” Most likely, the romantic stories were invented centuries after the martyrs’ gruesome deaths.
Feb. 14 has always been a celebration of love
We inherited our contemporary version of Valentine’s Day from the Victorians, but some accounts — such as a story last year in Lifehacker and another from NPR on “The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day” — have argued that the “real” history of the holiday can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome. In mid-February, the Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a drunken festival that involved hitting women with the hide of a sacrificial goat in hopes of increasing their fertility. The celebration was ultimately denounced by Pope Gelasius in the late 5th century and it fell out of favor, but some suspect that its lusty spirit carried over into Valentine’s Day traditions.
The links to Lupercalia, though, don’t hold up well to investigation. Geoffrey Chaucer appears to have been the first person to imbue St. Valentine’s feast day with romantic associations back in the 14th century. In his poem “Parlement of Foules,” Chaucer imagines Valentine’s Day as the occasion for birds to convene and choose their mates. Literary historian Jack B. Oruch points out that the holiday had no romantic pretenses “either literary or social in customs, before Chaucer.” Given the thousand-year gap between Lupercalia and the imaginary avian assembly, it seems unlikely the two were related.
Cupid is the incarnation of sweetness and romance.
When it comes to Valentine’s Day iconography, no one is more popular than Cupid, the rosy-cheeked cherub. In the neoclassical vision of Peter Paul Rubens, for instance, he flutters around Venus playfully. A similar creature powders the cheeks of a female centaur in Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia.”
But he wasn’t always a chubby toddler in a loincloth. Cupid is the Roman incarnation of the Greek god Eros, who first appears in “Theogony” by the poet Hesiod. This god, the “loveliest of all the Immortals,” was far from adorable. Eros wielded power over god and mortal alike, making men’s bodies “go limp, mastering their minds and subduing their wills.” Classical depictions of Eros (from pottery in the 5th century B.C., for instance) feature a young man who is both beautiful and dangerous. In the Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche, Cupid is defined by his seductive powers — and his reputation wasn’t exactly mild: In the 6th century, Archbishop Isidore of Seville called Cupid a “demon of fornication.”
By the Renaissance, artists began depicting a younger Cupid, often with his mother, Venus, though occasionally still in disturbingly seductive situations, as in “An Allegory With Venus and Cupid” by Bronzino. Baroque and rococo artists embraced the childlike Cupid by combining him with the biblical figure of the cherub. These fat, winged babies were responsible for provoking love rather than participating in it. His lascivious past long forgotten, the new Cupid was a beloved character on Victorian Valentine’s Day cards, which is probably how we wound up with such an adorably innocent matchmaker today.
Valentine's Day is pretty miserable for single people.
Marie Claire asserts that “we all know Valentine’s Day is deeply unpleasant if you’re single,” while GQ offers the single man’s “self-loathing guide” for the holiday. But you don’t have to pick up a magazine to notice the absurd amount of condescending pity aimed at single folks on this holiday. Psychologist Bella DePaulo points out that the way we talk about Valentine’s Day implies that those who are paired up “are happier people — even better people — than singles.” Our culture would have you believe that it’s either a romantic candlelight dinner for two or watching “Bridget Jones’s Diary” on repeat in your bathrobe while doing bicep curls with a pint of rocky road.
Luckily, there are reams of research on the lives of single people, and it shows that being alone is a far cry from being lonely. Sociologist Erik Klinenberg discovered that almost everyone who lives alone does so because they choose to, noting that one of his “most powerful findings is that nothing is lonelier than living with the wrong person.” Studies show that single people are more likely to have strong ties to friends and neighbors than their married friends do. They also place a higher value on meaningful work and experience more personal growth than those who are married.
So if your coupled friends can’t stop giving you pitying glances this time of year, just remind them that getting married doesn’t change your long-term happiness and that you and the other 110.6 million unmarried Americans are doing just fine.