Valentine’s — Past, Present & Future

It’s one of our favorite holidays around here — what’s not to love about Valentine’s Day? But it turns out that when you delve into the history of this day, things get — like our love lives sometimes do — a little complicated. Is it about love, partnership, marriage, religious faith, commercialism, pleasure, sex, friendship… or maybe all of the above? As it turns out, it depends… this special day has many stakeholders and has taken a circuitous route to its current position on the holiday calendar.

Valentine was a saint — maybe more than one, because historians haven’t firmly decided which of at least three martyred Christian Valentines the holiday may be named after. The most likely candidate, a priest near Rome who lived around 270 C.E. and married couples against the edict of Claudius II, was jailed and subsequently executed; he wasn’t sainted because of his role in his people’s love lives, exactly, but because he went up against the pagan establishment and lost. Still, legend has it, before he lost his battle to promote Christianity and its rites, he healed his jailer’s daughter of blindness and fell in love with her; his farewell note on the eve of his execution assured her of love “from your Valentine,” and this seems to be the foundation of the love notes we send on this holiday even now.

Chaucer used the notion of a day devoted to love in a poem celebrating the betrothal of two royals, in the 14th century penning a charming allegory of birds choosing mates and getting married. At least three other poets of his day riffed on this idea; Shakespeare mentioned Valentine’s (he has Ophelia speak of it in Hamlet); and whether these culture-makers popularized Valentine’s Day themselves or were responding to rituals that had already developed, their attention certainly shows that the idea of celebrating love had at least a toehold by the Renaissance. The notion of romance promoted by the emerging holiday became so common that the “Roses are red, violets are blue” doggerel we all associate with Valentine cards could be found in a commonly-available book of nursery rhymes for kids published in the late 18th century.

Some people have associated Valentine’s Day’s focus on love and pleasure with Lupercalia, an ancient Roman ritual which included, among its various rites, an emphasis on fertility. But really, what Roman holiday didn’t? It’s not considered a true forebear of Valentine’s by many scholars today, though here at the sex toy store, we may think of February 14th as more of a pagan holiday than a religious one. It’s certainly become an important day on the secular calendar, and not only for those of us who sell erotic gifts. While our wares may be a perfect Valentine’s Day present, the greeting card, chocolate, and cut flower industries got to the table long before the adult industry did!

Valentine cards in the United States are credited to a Massachusetts woman, Esther Howland — a Mount Holyoke graduate whose father owned a stationer’s shop and who in the late 1840’s received one of the ornate Valentine cards that had become the rage in England. She imported ribbons and lace and went into business, and if you love buying — or crafting — a beautiful token of romance for your lover, you have her to thank for that impulse. Partners and lovers celebrating their affection with cards sold a lot of cards — but today, the people who get the most Valentines are school teachers! In the 20th century student exchanges of friendship-focused Valentines became big business.

But the US isn’t the only country that celebrates love, friendship, or both. Valentine’s Day or comparable days are celebrated around the world. Apparently in Japan it’s customary for women to give chocolates to men in the workplace; to even things out, a month later White Day is celebrated, when the men at the office are supposed to gift back, and it’s been heavily promoted by the marshmallow industry. See, here we have Peeps, which has colonized Easter, to keep that sort of thing in check! Finland and Estonia, and a number of Central and South American countries too, celebrate friendship as well as love. Reportedly one reason Carnival is so popular in Brazil is its proximity to Valentine’s Day, giving travelers without a sweetheart something really distracting to do.

Controversy rages over Valentine’s Day in some parts of the world — in India, conservatives do not like it, and in many places throughout the Muslim world it’s frowned upon, forbidden, associated with vice, or blamed as a stalking horse for Western cultural values. It does seem to be associated with notions of relationship that we consider modern: couples who partner for love, choosing each other rather than accepting arranged marriages, for instance. It’s also more likely to be considered a religious holiday in cultures where Christianity isn’t the dominant religion — while we may not think of it that way in the US any longer, in other places, the fact that St. Valentine was a Christian martyr may still be a potent reason to suspect it.

When I consider the history of Valentine’s Day, especially as someone who’s not the marrying kind — my partner Robert and I are proud members of the Alternatives to Marriage Project’s list of notable unmarried couples — I especially value that we’ve come to celebrate it as a holiday that’s focused on love; I like love, and am happy that we celebrate it! I’m NOT happy that partnering is such a priority in our culture that many people find Valentine’s Day sad or depressing, and this makes me appreciate the gesture that school kids make when everyone in the class gets a Valentine from everyone else. And don’t forget that V-Day’s focus on pleasure means that we can be our very own Valentines — lay in your selected accouterments  and love the one you’re with!

But I will say that researching this post, I found myself unexpectedly moved by the old emphasis on marriage — because today, Marriage Equality is still a fraught topic, in some circles as controversial as ever, and while hopefully there will never be another martyr to love, plenty of same-sex couples still find that their love is caught on the altar of change. Today, St. Valentine might be marrying same-sex couples instead of ensuring that Roman soldiers could marry their brides. Tomorrow, may we all have the freedom to ritualize love and relationship in the way it feels to each of us, in our difference and diversity, the most right.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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