Holidays are no stranger to evolving meanings, or hidden and not-so-hidden pieces of horrific history: Thanksgiving managed to turn colonization and pillaging into a day to give thanks, Halloween became all about candy instead of the Celtics warding off ghosts and Christmas was a way for Christians to steal the spotlight from the Pagans until it, like Valentine’s Day, was also co-opted and turned into a consumerist hot mess.
But Valentine’s Day is an egregious example of holidays morphing from one thing to another. How did a holiday set to respect Catholic saints become about chocolate and Cupid?
Well, as it turns out, Valentine’s Day didn’t only have one source, and it wasn’t always about prayer. Popular belief, and the origin of the name itself, indicates that Valentine’s Day was intended originally to pay respects to the Catholic saint, Saint Valentine, who is rumored to be at least three different people that were martyred and thus deserving of sainthood.
The most romantic legend is that he was a priest who performed secret wedding ceremonies after they were outlawed by Emperor Claudius II. Complete with his execution on Feb. 14 around the year 270 A.D., Valentine's Day was born.
Another legend indicated Saint Valentine might have sent the first ever love letter to a girl who visited him during his imprisonment. What’s most important is that although Valentine was regarded as a hero of romance, his life was cut short by a history not fit for romantics.
But these fantasies of a holiday built on the foundations of romantic love aren’t the whole story. The Roman feast of Lupercalia is also thought to be a point of interest for investigating how we came to give out little greeting cards and candy hearts — though it wasn’t so sweet.
Lupercalia was bloody, abusive and wholly unromantic, though sex and fertility were important parts of it. On this holiday, men, who would often participate in these activities drunk and naked, would use the hides of goats and dogs they killed to whip local women, who clamored to be chosen on the thought that it would increase fertility.
In the fashion of a sicker, more ancient dating site, there was also a matchmaking lottery, with names drawn out of a bowl à la "The Hunger Games," pairing up couples to participate in Lupercalia together.
In the 5th century the Pope was having none of the drunken sex-and-violence fests of Lupercalia, and, as NPR put it — put the clothes back on. People were still drunk, in love and drunk on love, but things were a little more PG-13.
Authors helped too, with Shakespeare and Chaucer both romanticizing the holiday and romance in general, beginning the tradition of greeting cards as presents to loved ones that carries us into the capitalist hellscape that is the modern V-Day.
Though inoffensive compared to literally beating people or forbidding marriage to the point where priests are executed for hosting underground wedding ceremonies, the idea of $100+ jumbo teddy bears and expensive chocolate boxes have completely spiraled out of control.
If you’re not spending cold hard cash on your sweetheart, then what are you doing? Valentine’s Day is so pervasively consumerist that there are now a million and one ways to rope singles into spending money too.
In a “holiday” popularized by the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation," Galentine’s Day is a Feb. 13 tradition where you essentially get teddy bears and cards and chocolates to celebrate your friends rather than your significant other.
Let’s not forget the day after Valentine’s Day has been wryly dubbed as Single’s Awareness Day — or as most people like to look at it, discounted chocolate day. Which, really, is just a way of making purchasing things you don’t want or need seem ironic.
There’s nothing wrong with a day for showing love to people, and, in fairness, Valentine’s Day has at least somewhat broken out of the bonds of romance to expand to allowing love, platonic or romantic, to be expressed. Parents, grandparents, children, classmates and platonic friends all have a spot for their dynamics in the greeting card aisle.
And though LBGTQ+ inclusion is never a bad thing, greeting card companies suddenly making "For Her, From Her" sections in the aisle at CVS Pharmacy is 100 percent just a ploy to get more of those sweet, sweet Valentine’s dollars as you buy the even sweeter chocolate. But hey — progress!
If you don’t consider the fact that the most romantic day of the year now exists solely to make money off of greeting cards, chocolate boxes, edible arrangements, teddy bears, bottles of wine, flowers, lingerie, rom-com movie rentals, romantic candles and diamond jewelry, things don’t seem all bad.
At least it’s not Lupercalia.