sex & relationships

Valentine’s Day: Its roots, growth and survival

“They spent the evening cuddling, kissing, laughing and talking to each other…Their internet was obviously down” : Valentines card, shop window 2016.

“From your Valentine” : A sign off on a letter to a girl who had shown Valentine, a priest, kindness during his imprisonment, AD 270.

Has Valentine’s Day changed much in those intervening years? I think not. It has moved with the times as so many other events have, but changed? No.

Let’s start by looking back at where this celebration of love may have originated from.


Valentine was a priest in the 3rd century in Rome. The Emperor Claudius II held the view that single men made better soldiers as they weren’t constantly worrying about their wives and children. He therefore decreed that marriage be banned for these young men. This was seen as total injustice by Valentine and he continued to perform marriages in secret.

The Emperor was also keen on encouraging a permissive society which was against the Christian view of marriage and once Claudius had discovered Valentine’s attempts to thwart his philosophy, he was imprisoned and ordered to be beaten, stoned and decapitated. During his imprisonment he befriended his jailor’s daughter – and the story goes that it was to her he wrote a letter just before his death, signing it, “From your Valentine”. He was put to death, believed to be mid-February and the rest as they say, is history. I’m just glad he wasn’t called Barry.

Some claim that Valentine’s Day was celebrated in mid-February to help ‘Christianise’ the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. This was a fertility festival which involved sacrificing goats and dogs, with women keen to touch the hides to make them more fertile. According to legend a large urn would be filled with the names of the woman in the city. The bachelors of said city would choose a name and become paired with the woman for a year in the hope that this would result in marriage.

Call me a romantic but I prefer Valentine’s story – and many may rue the day of the digital age, but at least we’ve come a long way from these rituals. Fortunately this behaviour was outlawed by the 5th century when Gelasius declared February 14th Saint Valentine’s Day and Valentine was recognised as the Patron Saint of lovers.

Love yourself

Later in France and England it was associated with the beginning of the birds mating season, which may also explain the connection to romance. But let’s face it, wherever it began and however commercial it has become, I’m not sure we’d want it wiped off the calendar, would we? What is not to like about being wined, dined, and sent secret cards; being given flowers or chocolates or more importantly GIVING these gifts to others, be they lovers, friends or family?

We perhaps shouldn’t need a particular day to be reminded about this, but some people do need a nudge in the right direction. And it isn’t obligatory. Of course if you feel the loneliest person in the world around February it does seem to turn into ‘Single Awareness Day’… but there is no law that says you can’t love yourself…and I’m talking about buying yourself a cheeky chocolate, or a red rose. After all the saying goes, ‘if you can’t love yourself you haven’t much chance of loving someone else.’

Back in the Middle Ages (500-1500) Valentine Day Greetings were popular, with written greetings appearing after 1400. In 1900 the printed card replaced the handwritten letter – and the card remains ever popular. According to the Greeting Card Association, 1 billion Valentine Cards are sent each year.

Clinton card shop

The UK has a long tradition of sending cards, more than any other country and is an important part of our culture. Women purchase 85% of all cards although these are not necessarily confined to Valentine’s. 

So back to our original thought. How has this tradition changed?

Digital age

Well for a start this tradition isn’t dying. If you want to take your loved one out for a meal on February 14th – I hope you booked it back in November. We know cards are still popular and so are romantic breaks, chocolates, flowers…you cannot walk down the high street without being terrorised by shop windows dressed in red petals or pink fluffy bunnies.

If you are anti-Valentine’s Day it could send you straight back into your room to log onto your laptop to escape the advertising…but don’t for one minute think you can get away from Valentine’s here. The digital age saw it coming a long way off. Just when you thought you could shy away from a card shop and be safe, the marketing gurus are out there with their cupid arrows and they are targeting each and every one of us.

‘OO’ – You gotta love Google

Last year Google decided to celebrate ‘the way technology brings people together’. As a way of fighting back against the suggestion that the increase of smart phones, tablets and the internet can distance people, Google wanted to show how technology embraces togetherness. The doodle ‘Google’ was created in different scenarios with the two Os texting each other, bonding over music with shared earpieces, lending out their charger for their laptop, and bumping into each other while following a (no doubt) Google map on their phones. (It was just as well that the marketing man didn’t ask my response the last time someone, looking at their phone and not-where-they-were-going, bumped into me.)

The Google spokesperson said of the campaign, “Technology is fully ingrained in the ways we express appreciation for one another.”

In a previous campaign on Valentine’s Day, Google allowed people to personalise cartoon chocolates to send to loved one’s in a mini game. I wonder if Saint Valentine would have been turning in his grave or grateful that the tradition was moving with the times.

Buy! Buy! Buy!

There are many companies which have made use of Valentine’s Day as a way of increasing their own awareness. In an informative piece by Lisa Lacy, Marketing campaigns to swoon over, you may be forgiven for feeling just a teeny bit tired of the way companies have taken over this tradition. Bombarding us with videos, apps, shareable GIFs etc. However, putting cynicism aside what else do you expect them to do?

There are different ways of advertising now – and as already discussed, February 14th and its significance is not going anywhere! Be it West Jet airlines, Oreos, Revlon, fabric conditioner (so romantic) or a flower company that use drones to target lovers and drop red roses at their feet, there is no stopping the digital age getting in on the act. Of course there is no stopping it – even Pilot, the pen company has their director of consumer marketing stating, “There’s a unique magic that happens when pen meets paper and we want to make it simple for our followers and friends to share that magic in the digital age.”

I’ll just give you a few seconds to digest the irony in that statement and for Valentine to get comfy after another roll.

A graduate from Nottingham, who wished to remain anonymous, had this to say about the bombardment of ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’ which reflects the newer tradition of this romantic celebration:

The other day I walked past a House of Fraser and noted the huge window display of handbags, expensive perfumes and shoes and the phrase “YOU CAN BUY ME LOVE” stuck on it.
Mark my words there’ll be a scrum on InstaTwitterBook of people showing off what their partners bought for them and vice versa. I might even inadvertently find myself participating, begrudgingly. Liking photos of Michael Kors watches or expensive restaurants.

There wouldn’t be anything wrong with this really, if it went hand in hand with actual demonstrations of love – like respect, listening to one another, caring about one another’s interests. But there’s a lot less emphasis on these things – I guess because they’re not profitable and nobody needs to be trying to sell us them. I know this doesn’t mean necessarily that people don’t care about one another anymore, but it does mean that we’re caught up first in the message that BUYING STUFF IS GOOD before thinking that other, more meaningful gestures should come first.

All of this makes me feel a bit disconnected, and uncomfortable. So who knows how people who don’t have a partner to do the “Valentine’s Day performance” with feel?” Anon.

And to back this up, having searched #valentinesday on Twitter, this was the first, after scrolling pages and pages of tweets, that was not trying to sell me something.

Which brings us onto the matter of finding a date for Valentine’s Day. It’s probably rather more do-able in the digital age.

Digital Dating

For course there is the plethora of dating apps, which have been discussed many a time in the Sex and Relationships section here at Kettle. Our very own Aoife Bennett amuses us regularly with her Tinderella stories.

But does this online dating change any rules for Valentine’s Day? Of course not. If you are finding love or lust online, remember this: keep your photo current and don’t when you have a date spend all evening on your phone. But most of all, be yourself and stick to your principles. It’s what Valentine did. Yes, okay it got him into a bit of hot water…but hey, we’re still talking about him all these years on! 

St Valentine,

What do you think? How has Valentine’s Day evolved in the digital age? Have your say in the comments section below.