I follow writer and comedienne Natasha Rothwell on Instagram—she plays the hilariously upfront Kelli in the HBO show Insecure—and on January 19, she made her first post about the impending doom of Valentine’s 2018:
I chuckled at it at first—it’s funny!—then sighed, because it’s not like Rothwell’s joke is far from the truth. Valentine’s Day is such a messed up “holiday” with how capitalist-driven it is and how performative its portrayal of love, or rather romance, that inspires a cheesy kind of excitement and derision in equal measure (obviously, I fall within the latter category). How did we all reach this point where gaudily packaged chocolates, heart-shaped paraphernalia, and overpriced flowers become stand-ins for displays of affection, in a single day out of 364 others in a year?
According to Arnie Seipel over at NPR, in contrast to the saccharine image that Valentine’s Day has had for the past couple of centuries, the holiday’s origins are pretty dark. In celebration of the feast of Lupercalia, ancient Romans would sacrifice a goat and a dog every February 15 in order to ward off evil spirits and invite health and fertility into the city of Rome. Just normal pagan stuff—until the part where the men would whip the women with the hides of the slain animals. Record scratch.
From Seipel’s NPR story: “The Roman romantics ‘were drunk. They were naked,’ says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.
“The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival—or longer, if the match was right.” Um, sounds scary more than romantic.
It took the words of The Bard and Geoffrey Chaucer during the Middle Ages to craft this macabre matchmaking holiday into a more PR-friendly one. The latter, in particular, is believed by some literary experts to be the first person responsible for this image overhaul with his poem The Parliament of Fowls. Dartmouth English professor Peter Travis explains, “[Parliament] explores the ideals of cosmic order, political order, and erotic desire—all dramatized in a raucous debate carried on by a parliament of birds. At the end of this argument concerning the nature and purpose of love, Nature encourages all her birds to choose their appropriate mates.”
Saint Valentine’s Day was mentioned a couple of times in the poem, like in the passage below:
“ […] ther sat a quene
That, as of light the somer-sonne shene
Passeth the sterre, right so over mesure
She fairer was than any creature.
And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.
For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make, (ll. 298-310)”
Because reading ye Olde English is a trip, Carl Pyrdum III, a graduate student in Medieval Studies at Yale University (as of February of 2009), provides a loose translation of the passage in his blog:
“There sat a queen who was more lovely by far than any other creature, just as the summer sun outshines the stars. This noble goddess Nature sat enthroned in a pavilion she had wrought of branches upon a flowered hill atop a meadow. And there was not any bird born of love that was not ready in her presence to hear her and receive her judgment. For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when all the birds of every kind that men can imagine come to choose their mates.”
Pyrdum points out that Parliament may not have been the first time that Saint Valentine’s Day was connected to the idea of picking one’s mate. “To say that Chaucer’s Parliament contains the first extant reference to a romantic Valentine’s Day means that no texts that can be dated earlier than the late 1380’s connect the Feast of St. Valentine to romance.” Speculating that the poem was written sometime between the late 1370s to the late 1380s, Pyrdum believes that Chaucer’s reason for picking a saint’s day to connect to romance—a saint who was beheaded, by the way—was just kind of a joke.
Regardless of Chaucer’s intentions, the link he and Shakespeare helped establish between Valentine and romance took hold in Europe, and handmade paper cards became popular tokens of love and affection. This practice made its way to the New World, where it got swept up in the 19th century Industrial Revolution, and in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo., pioneered the mass production of valentine cards. Valentine’s Day has never looked the same since.
And that’s how a macabre festivity got jacked up into what it was by capitalism.
More than the fact that people who are suckered into Valentine’s Day’s blatant play for their money, there’s also something dark about its celebration and encouragement of performative romance—not love, okay, but romance. Sure, a small card to declare your affections, a single rose to show your intentions—these seem pretty harmless. But within the wider landscape of cunningly crafted “viral” videos and mass marketed products that put a premium on broad declarations of love, they’re no longer so isolated and harmless. Why does “love” need to be in everybody’s faces? Why not celebrate its subtler, more substantial demonstrations, such as constancy and fidelity? (Answer: Because that means putting in real relationship work over time, which isn’t sexy enough to sell in a Valentine’s Day promo.) Why not embrace love’s different forms, other than romantic? (Answer: Not sexy, either.) And why the perverse concentration of it on a single day? Society is already set up to serve well the needs of (heterosexual) couples; no need to rub it further into the faces of those who aren’t paired up with someone else, either by choice or by consequence.
And yes, counter celebrations such as Single Awareness Day are funny, but they’re as effective as taking medication to control your diarrhea when, you know, you could stop eating garbage in the first place.
Header image courtesy of Unsplash
Writer: SEPTEMBER GRACE MAHINO