Valentine’s Day has never been a big day for me. Not when I was single and believed that I would be forever alone, not when I was in a relationship. Not even after I got married.
I’ve always approached it from a cynical stance ie. as a day for KPI-driven capitalists to make a killing on profits. I’ve always seen it as a misguidedly overrated celebration.
But due to circumstances, this year I found myself in the thick of Valentine’s Day festivities (if you can call it that).
I was part of a crew handling a portion of the logistics for V-day gift delivery. I’d always been curious, you see, about how crazy things get during this internationally declared “day of love”.
It was crazy. Men had preordered an overwhelming number of gifts. And the pressure was on to deliver every single one of those gifts by mid-afternoon.
There were others still who showed up on the day itself to make a purchase that was considered “last-minute”, to be given to their significant other on their mandatory Valentine’s Dinner date.
The Cost of Tradition
I also do some work in the food and beverage industry, and leading up to the date I found myself dumbfounded as I watched prices for February 14 dinners shoot up by at least 25%.
Can’t you show love to your partner every day, I wondered. Why was this one day so special? Was I missing something? Could there be another angle to this?
And then Qingming crossed my mind. The Chinese festival to pray to our dead ancestors. On this day, the Chinese who still observe this tradition clean their relatives’ graves, bring offerings of food, and burn joss sticks and other paper items.
This could be done at any other time. There’s no need to drive all the way to your hometown, no necessity to compete for parking at the various cemeteries. There’s no need to endure the hours spend under the hot sun breathing in the smoke and scent of burning paper that fills the entire cemetery where everyone else is also burning paper.
But we do it. Because tradition. It’s a show of respect. It’s a sign that our loved ones are dead, but not forgotten.
I’m starting to see that Valentine’s Day is a tradition of its own as well. True, gifts and dinners can all be had on any other day. But celebrating Valentine’s Day with the person you love has its own symbolism.
Like making new year resolutions, perhaps V-day is yet another practice that’s part of the modern-day non-religious set of traditions and doctrines.
But February 14 hasn’t always been such a romantic day (unless you’re into BDSM) and like many other celebrations also has religious origins.
The Feast of Lupercalia
A Roman pagan festival that’s said to have started at around the same time that Rome was founded, Lupercalia was apparently a festival for fertility. It was celebrated sometime during the period between February 13 to February 15.
February 14 was supposedly celebrated in honour of the Roman goddess Juno, who reigned over women and marriage. The day after was Lupercalia — celebrating the god Lupercus, who’s associated with fertility.
Lupercalia involved feasting, of course, typically on goat meat. (The goat horn is a symbol of fertility.) Besides slaughtering the goats, the celebrants — fit men of military age, called Luperci — also used the goat hide to make whips.
After the feasting, the Luperci would run naked around the city whipping people. Apparently, getting whipped was a good thing because the belief at the time was that it would increase fertility.
It was also a “day of love” in the sense that men would pull women’s names out of a jar and they would spend the festival period in a f*cking (literally) frenzy.
How did a bordering-on-BDSM pagan festival (which sounds amazing, btw) become the celebration of romance that we know today?
The Martyr called St Valentine
There are multiple stories about a saint called Valentine. Some say that he went against the Roman emperor at the time to secretly perform marriage ceremonies for couples. Others say that he was imprisoned for practising Christianity.
All the stories end with his death, supposedly on February 14.
As Christianity continued to gain dominance in Rome, the Pope at the time “cancelled” Lupercalia and replaced it with St Valentine’s Day.
Although it was meant to celebrate the martyrdom of St Valentine, some aspects of Lupercalia made its way into the new festival. And with St Valentine being known as the “patron of lovers”, it’s not surprising that the idea of romantic love seeped into this new February 14 celebration.
And today, we celebrate Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers. The typical tradition includes gift-giving and candlelit dinners. For some, there may still be whips involved.