Gird Your Loins: Valentine’s Day is Just Around the Corner

By Victoria Mullen


As the dreaded V-Day draws ever nearer, it’s time for us–and I’m speaking for all three of me–to take stock of our current state of affairs. V-Day does not discriminate. The day is significant for those coupled and singled alike, if for no other reason than to keep capitalism alive and well.


Just how much was spent on this “holiday” last year? The answer is $18.9 billion. This bears scrutiny and a bit of a breakdown: $52.2 million for flowers (a grand time for the floral industry and much deserved); $50 million in jewelry; $38.3 million on apparel (surely not woolen socks); $18.6 million on specialty gifts (use your imagination); $7.2 million on movies; $7.1 million on restaurants; and $1.2 million on salons and spas.


This last item I daresay I do indeed covet.


As for poundage and number of items, there was and will be plenty of that: 58 million pounds of chocolate, 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and 8 billion Sweethearts will be purchased for the big day. All added up robot lovethat’s $1.7 billion spent on candy. Billion. Translated into calories… well, let’s not spoil things. In fact, let’s change the subject: Pets like V-Day, too, because their people will spend more than $700 million on gifts for their furry family members.


Clearly, I am in the wrong business.

How was this allowed to happen?

Someone was asleep at the wheel and then things got out of hand and now it’s too late to take it back. Suffice it to say, the industry was born and now we are left to deal with it.


What’s so special about Valentine’s Day? First off, it’s St. Valentine’s Day, and this romantic tradition has its roots in the Middle Ages when people chose a romantic partner on that particular day because they believed birds started mating. On that particular day.


I’m as confused as you are.


Actually, I have led you astray–the tradition dates back way earlier than the Middle Ages; it took root in the late 3rd century. The historical Saint Valentine was an early Christian martyred by the Romans. St. Valentine was a Roman priest during the reign of Roman emperor, and church persecutor, Claudius the Second–also known as Claudius the Cruel.


Claudius believed that unmarried soldiers made better fighters than married ones; single fighters were less likely to become distracted by wives and children back home. True to his name, Claudius the Cruel decided to ban all marriages and engagements in Rome. St. Valentine refused to be a party to this injustice, so he disobeyed the emperor’s orders and secretly married young couples. Once Valentine’s illegal acts were discovered, he was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded.


I’m a fan of do-gooders just like the next guy, but what did Valentine think would happen? He must have known that no good deed goes unpunished. Still, here’s a really key fact: Legend has it that while in prison, St. Valentine befriended the jailer’s daughter and left her a note signed “From your Valentine.”


But why February 14? Hint: It has to do with the Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love celebrated by the Romans in the third century.



The Feast of Lupercalia honored, in part, Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. That explains the name of the festival, Lupercalia, or “Wolf Festival.” Pagans observed the holiday on February 13 through 15, and believed it averted evil spirits and purified the city, releasing health and fertility.


Young men in ancient Rome celebrated Lupercalia by running naked through the streets and slapping young women with “shaggy thongs.” Sadly, this custom didn’t survive the ages and you won’t find a contemporary equivalent.


Plutarch expounded on the custom: “[M]any women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.”


Why did the Catholic church make such big deal out of this centuries later? Sure, hands were struck. But nobody was hurt or Plutarch surely would have written about it. Can you blame the upper-class women? Certainly naked youths running through the streets wasn’t a common sight, and you know how out of shape noblemen allow themselves to get.


A more disturbing festival ritual involved putting the names of young women in a box. Men drew the names and, as fate is wont to do, forced matches that often ended in marriage.


In 496 AD, in an effort to rid the country of the pagan festival and replace it with Christian goodness, Pope Gelasius declared that February 14 be celebrated as St. Valentines Day.


(By the way, did you know the Ides of February is the 13th? I didn’t even know February had an Ides.)

Is it in the cards?

Which brings us to contemporary times. Remember when you were in grade school and your teacher had you make a valentine for each kid in class–even someone you really, really hated–so that no one would feel left out? That custom began in the 1700s among adults, only back then, people were more discriminating about to whom they expressed their undying love and devotion. People back then took this shit seriously. They wrote special notes and letters–some of which were quite long–each one handwritten on regular writing paper. They used cursive, by the way.valentines


Later, in the 1820s, papers were made especially for Valentine greetings. These became fashionable in the U.S. and Britain; in the 1840s commercially produced Valentine cards surged in popularity when Britain standardized its postal rates. These cards were flat paper sheets with colored illustrations and embossed borders. Fancy, yes, but functional, too: When folded and sealed with wax, the sheets could be mailed.


But what would a sweet, innocent tradition be without exploiting it? New England resident Esther Howland received an English Valentine one year and thought, “Hmmm.” She then began making her own cards and sold them in her father’s store. Daddy was a stationer.


The rest is history. If you really want to know all the details, go here. Fascinating stuff. Too many fun factoids to include in one essay.

Leaplings, rejoice!

Now, a little bit about Leap Year Day because it’s important, may be the answer to many a spinster’s wishes and it also falls in February.


Leap Day was introduced more than 2,000 years ago to keep the calendar year synchronized with the seasons. The Earth turns roughly 365-and-a-quarter times on its axis by the time it has completed a full year’s orbit around the sun. That means periodically the calendar has to catch up. A Leap YThe+Magic+Valentines+story+artear contains one extra day—February 29—for a total of 366 days.


Not very romantic, but it gets the job done, plus it gives people an excuse to celebrate yet another thing during dreary February.

Indeed, what is a once-in-four-years day without something special attached to it? Some countries have a tradition—quite popular, I understand—called Bachelor’s Day, which gives women the opportunity to propose marriage to men on February 29. The hitch is that if the man refuses, he has to buy the woman a dress or give her money. The European upper-crust had different consequences: If a man refused marriage, he was obliged to purchase 12 pairs of gloves for the woman.


I can see great potential in this custom for the entrepreneurial female, especially if she knows for certain the man will not accept her proposal, but only if he pays her handsomely or she gets to pick out the dress. Gloves I (er, she) can do without.


On the flip side, people in Greece considered marrying on leap day unlucky because they believed the couple would be likely to get divorced. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Greeks are overly superstitious. As I am of Greek descent, I can say this with impunity. While it is part of our charm, it can–and often does–wear thin. (But to be doubly safe, I do have an evil eye destroyer at home always at the ready.)

Those sneaky Victorians

The Victorians have a bad rep for being repressed and prudish. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is much to be said about playing coy and leaving everything to the imagination. One Victorian courting custom in particular allowed a woman to signal various emotions without making a fool of herself. Yes, a woman was allowed certain liberties: She could flirt with her fan, as this behavior was within the protocol of accepted behavior. Here are what different signals meant aka Exhibit A:


Fan fast–I am independent
Fan slow–I am engaged
Fan with right hand in front of face–Come on
Fan with left hand in front of face–Leave me
Fan open and shut–Kiss me
Fan open wide–Love
Fan half open–Friendship
Fan shut–Hate
Fan swinging–Can I see you home?


The last one implies that the woman will see the man home, a true role reversal if I ever saw one. Could it be–indeed, dare I hope–that equality among the sexes was evident at least a little bit during Victorian times?


What say ye?