Valentine's Day, February 14, is a day consecrated by custom to the celebration of romantic love. The observance dates back to medieval times but, in twentieth-century America, Valentine's Day—like other occasions that are linked to sentiment, such as Mother's Day—has become a ritual appendage of consumer culture. Attempts to link Valentine's Day and its emphasis on worldly love to an early martyr (or pair of martyrs) of the Christian church have been discredited, and historians have come to attribute the connection between romance and February 14 to Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400), the English poet and author of The Canterbury Tales.
In his work The Parliament of Foules, Chaucer wrote: "For this was Seynt Valentyne's Day. When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate." Throughout the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, Valentine's Day was an occasion for declaring one's affections or using divination to determine the identity of one's lover or future spouse. Sleeping on a pillow to which five bay leaves were pinned, for example, would produce a dream in which a lover would be revealed. Observances of the day could be elegant and courtly or a raucous and vulgar charivari (mock serenade, usually of newlyweds). The first Valentine's day cards were hand-made, but by the early nineteenth century in England printed cards were common. When this fashion was exported to the United States in the 1840s a veritable Valentine mania broke out.
The industrialized world of the early 1800s suffered from a shortage of holidays. Where once the feasting and fasting days of the Christian year had provided the occasion for a host of holidays, festivals, and fairs, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution had, in the names of efficiency and the economy, produced a calendar almost empty of special days. (In 1761 there were 47 bank holidays in England; by 1834 there were only four.) By popularizing and commercializing Valentine's Day in the United States the merchant class reshaped, romanticized, and tamed the day for their own purposes. Valentine's Day (and slightly later, Christmas) demonstrates how business could profit from creating new meaning for an old holiday.
Printing companies were not the only ones to profit from the new popularity of the day as other business interests rapidly attached themselves to the successful annual marketing of romance. Confectioners sold candies and chocolates in great quantities, while florists, jewelers, photographers, and makers of pens, pins, and knickknacks of all kinds found they could increase sales by linking their product to Valentine's Day. Women and children were prime targets for this commercialization of sentiment.
In the twentieth century the Valentine's Day industry grew even more vast. By the 1990s, sales of candy for the occasion had risen to over $600 million; 70 million roses are given on the day; restaurants are filled with couples seeking romantic dining; over a billion cards are exchanged every year in the United States alone, with school children leading the way. Hallmark Cards, the largest American manufacturer, produces over 2,000 different designs, which are changed annually. Most of these cards are plainer than they once were, shorn of the peacock feathers, real lace, and jewels that once adorned those of the nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that Valentine cards were not always necessarily sent as straightforward declarations of love. A widespread custom was the anonymous sending of insulting or sarcastic cards, often aimed at women to keep them in their place, and comic or satirical, even vulgar, cards were still bought and sent in the late twentieth century.
Valentine's Day is celebrated in song and film as synonymous with romantic love. It is a day for dances and gala balls, the advertising of "honeymoon suites" for married couples whose ardor may have waned over the years, and for decorating public places with heart shapes pierced by the arrow of an often visible and cherubic Cupid. Over the years the holiday has spread beyond England and America to Europe, Asia, and other English-speaking countries such as South Africa and Australia, and production and sales of Valentine cards have become a world-wide phenomenon.
MacDonald, Margaret Read. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Gale Research, 1992.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995.