I painted my nails red for Valentine’s Day. Very cliché, I know. This is shocking and out of character for me for two reasons: 1) I painted my nails — which I almost never do, and 2) I have spent the last 21.5 years (yes, even as a small infant) vehemently opposed to Valentine’s Day. When I was in elementary school, I would symbolically wear black (or whatever black clothing my mother let my nine-year-old self-wear — I definitely didn’t buy my own clothes) to make a statement. My mother would give me “love gifts” the day AFTER Valentine’s Day to respect my cause, and I even wrote a poem entitled “I Hated Valentine’s Day” in fifth grade and got in trouble with a teacher. I was dedicated to my cause. As I grew older, I was still vocal about my loathing of the red holiday, but I needed evidence to back it up. So teen me decided to educate herself.
The origins of Valentine’s Day as we know it are anything but sweet. Valentine’s Day originates from the Roman feast of Lupercalia. Starting February 13th and ending the 15th, the ancient Romans would celebrate the upcoming spring with food, booze, fertility whipping and a blind date lottery. Barely clothed and drunk, Roman young men and women would line up to be whipped, expecting fertility in the spring. Then, those who were single would enter a matchmaking lottery, from which they would draw the names of random people with whom they would spend the holiday (and hopefully ultimately marry).
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Catholicism, Pope Gelasius I replaced the feast of Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day in the 5th century. Who Valentine was is up for debate. Some accounts suggest that he was a priest imprisoned by the Romans who fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and signed one of his love notes “from your Valentine.” Another account suggests that St. Valentine was a man who went against Roman rule and secretly married couples to prevent men from going to war. So what are we celebrating and how did it evolve into a Hallmark holiday?
The holiday wasn’t romanticized until writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare came about and popularized it by writing poems about matchmaking and exchanging gifts. And with the founding of Hallmark Cards in 1913, Valentine’s Day emerged as the consumer-backed holiday with which we’re now familiar. According to the National Retail Federation, 55 percent of Americans will participate in Valentine’s Day this year. In total, Americans are expected to spend $4.3 billion on jewelry, $2 billion on flowers and an average of $143.56 on gifts.
Despite knowing the origins of this big, lousy holiday, I still painted my nails red this February because I realized that it’s more about who you love and how you love them than it is about what you give them. Listening to the Modern Love podcast, I thought more about the people in my life and how much I appreciate them. For those unfamiliar with it, Modern Love is a podcast based on the weekly New York Times column. A collaborative production between WBUR and The New York Times, the weekly podcast features celebrities reading essays published in the column, while host Meghna Chakrabarti interviews the essayists themselves. The column encompasses the love that exists between mother and child, adopted families, friends and lovers. The common theme amongst all the essays is love — how the essay writers hope for it, felt it for others or even discussed regret at not showing it.
When I asked my mom why she got me those post-Valentine’s-Day gifts she said, “It’s because I love you.” And when I asked my friend E why she made her friends individual lemon tarts with hand written cards, she told me it was because she is grateful for our friendships. Although it originates from an alcohol-fueled Roman festival and has turned into a super cheesy, capitalistic holiday obsessed with chocolate candy and pink teddy bears from CVS, Valentine’s Day is about showing those around you that you care. And with that, I wish you all a happy day after Valentine’s Day!