Is Valentine’s Day for everyone?

Ruth Griffiths

Sometime during the next week you may find yourself helping a young student to address a multitude of tiny greeting cards. It’s the desperate preparation for Valentine’s Day, an annual celebration of love and friendship that many believe is just another merchandising gimmick. 

On Feb. 14 people celebrate Valentine’s Day by sending messages of love and affection to partners, family and friends.. The holiday may have originated as a Christian feast day honouring a Roman martyr but by the Middle Ages, St. Valentine shows up in Chaucer’s poem “Parliament of Fowls” (referring to the mating pattern of birds in early spring), and later in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which alludes to lucky lovers meeting on St. Valentine’s Day.

History professor Elizabeth White Nelson says those origin stories were popularized in 19th century North America to give the holiday a historical grounding, particularly as a counterpoint to society’s fears about its commercialization. “Saints’ days are often merged with pagan holidays…, so it’s very possible that Lupercalia turns into another fertility holiday that somehow gets associated with St. Valentine, and over a period of time, all those associations stay connected. ”

Valentine’s Day exploded in popularity in the 1840s, although it was confined to a very specific idea of romantic love. According to Nelson, exchanging gifts, particularly spoons and gloves, became a way for couples to convey a sense of permanence with their beloved, and, traditionally, they remained each other’s Valentine for the entire year.

In 1850, Esther Howland began one of the first mass-produced Valentine’s Day card businesses in the U.S. These initial Valentines were rectangular in shape, assembled with fancy lace, and often featured poems, cherubs, heart motifs, birds, flowers, and other imagery commonly associated with the holiday today. Her cards became a commercial success but there was pushback in popular literature against buying these pricey cards. It was thought that a husband wasting his hard-earned cash on something as trivial as a fancy paper card was not a good sign for the marital road ahead.

“Whether it is frivolous is embedded in the commercial celebration of it from the very beginning,” Nelson says. So the need to justify the holiday and anchor its roots in something historically meaningful becomes a way to address this criticism. But skepticism didn’t stop its growing popularity.

The holiday continued to evolve from the 19th century on, becoming more of a technological and marketing story. The inexpensive mass-production of Valentine’s cards coupled with the advertising boom of the early 20th century, eventually paved the way for large companies like Hallmark to dominate the market.

Companies like Hallmark have actually helped broaden our notions of love and allowed for more inclusivity in celebrations, particularly in recent years. Greeting cards have expand the notion of love and the way that Valentine’s Day is depicted.

Some people don’t feel included in the holiday, as if it were a party and they didn’t get an invitation. For some, Valentine’s Day can feel lonely and isolating. However, inclusivity for Valentine’s Day celebrations has drastically expanded in recent years. Greeting card companies came to understand that love is broad — it’s not just romantic love. Inclusion is important for humans but also from a business and marketing point of view. It’s called market expansion. Only depicting romantic love and card exchange would be totally excluding all these other types of love, such as children exchanging little cards or giving teachers cards, or bringing colleagues or coworkers cards.

While the Victorian celebrations revolved around  traditional ideas, today we have a much wider scope of how we celebrate our affections for one another. People celebrate with their children, pets, friends and more. 

Most agree that we shouldn’t only celebrate love once a year, nor feel pressure to buy anything to show our affections. But creating awareness that true love is for everyone — and that it shows up in a myriad of forms — is definitely something to celebrate.