Can’t Buy Me Love (Okay, Well…)


Casey Bacon, Co-Editor

Walking into any store on the 13th of February, a shopper is practically guaranteed to encounter heart-shaped, gaudy displays, shelves raided but for a few forlorn candy boxes, the remnants of the dozens of bouquets that were sold out a day before, and check-out lines teeming with patrons, their baskets full of last-minute presents when they realized that the following day had snuck up much quicker than anticipated. Welcome to Valentine’s Day. The date is dedicated to love, made for sweeping displays of affection for that special someone in your life; or, arguably, for the skepticism and loathing that singles harbor as they take the day to treat their one and only; themselves. Whatever category you may fall into, the fact that we are assaulted with this occasion of love and all of its connotations far before the day itself is inescapable. The wider majority of the population feels compelled to observe the day, most often with a gift purchase, but are we racking up the day as a capitalistic ploy, or are we missing the point of February 14th with every cliched buy we make?

Though the day is now associated with the warm and fuzzies, its roots aren’t so romantic. Most historians trace the celebration of the day to an ancient Roman festival known as “Lupercalia,” with some postulates basing it back even further. Beginning on the 13th of February and lasting two days, this fertility bash was far rowdier than the dinner dates we now schedule around this time: festivities included animal sacrifices, splayed hide coats, the planned assault of women with said pelts– all for the sake of fertility, of course; women lined up for this privilege– and a “matchmaking lottery” that paired up couples for the duration of the celebration or longer. Despite the bunches of fun that this posed for everyone involved, the holiday eventually became a behavior that fell out of practice with those of the upper class, thus killing it out slowly for the rest. Lupercalia may not come with the modern idea that we have of love, but we may owe a tip of the hat to the Romans for establishing the celebration. Legend has it that Emperor Claudius II executed two men by the name of Valentine on February 14th of different years in the 3rd century. Fast forward to the end of the 5th century, where Pope Gelasius I is looking to put a final end to the devoutly deplorable Lupercalia; he instead established a holiday to celebrate the patron Saint Valentine (with many saints by this name, it’s thought to serve as more of a culmination of several rather than just one), but this went largely unobserved for another 10 centuries. It wasn’t until this point that the concept of Valentine’s Day is thought to have been widely popularized and brought to the public by Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer, whose poem “Parlement of Foules” is credited as the first written word tying Valentine’s Day with love: “For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.” It’s not until the 18th century that Britain’s citizens exchange Valentine’s Day notes, but it was American Esther Howland, daughter of a stationery and bookstore owner, who began the mass-production of cards after receiving one herself. This led to the ultimate establishment of the tradition that today gives us the wide array of cheap 30-packs of themed paper cards almost exclusively reserved for the celebrations of elementary schoolers. Oh, and I suppose the lucrative greeting card business that thrives on the love of the day, as well.

It’s not only the stationary business that booms in this period; it’s the whole of the economy. The National Retail Federation reported that on this year’s day of love, Americans are expected to have spent $19.7 billion dollars on the whole. The top sellers? All of the essential wooers that you would assume: a box of chocolates ($15.11), diamond earrings ($323.36), a dozen roses ($41.66), dinner for two ($80.46), and a bottle of champagne ($51.54). Setting aside the champagne for our high school readers, these prices can be a little steep for a single day, especially if there’s more than a single purchase involved, and they don’t show signs of dropping. From financial group LPL Research’s study, the prices for Valentine’s Day gifts have increased by 1.3% in 2015, more than the overall inflation rate; meanwhile, the cost of a night out hasn’t dropped in the 15-year history of the group’s analysis. Though the income of this age group stands at about the lowest of all others, researchers have found that young adults are the most likely to splurge for their sweethearts. A Discovery survey found that adults under 35 years old planned to spend an average of $185– $40 than survey respondents overall; Time attributes this on the fact that these people are more likely to be in the “head-over-heels” phase of the relationship. This correlates with further research that as the seriousness of the relationship increases, the demonstration of love with gifts decreases: reports that people who are engaged spend a little less, while those who are married spend even less still. Consequently, nearly half of all married couples say that they’ll spend their Valentine’s Day no farther than their own sofa.

In the same survey, a quarter of participants said that they saw the holiday as nothing more than a retail gimmick- a “Hallmark holiday,” if you will. The term is one that’s pretty self-explanatory– these are holidays that are believed to exist only for their commercial value, not in relation to any historical or traditional event, with those like Grandparents Day, Secretary’s Day, [insert obscure holiday here], and in some views, tagging on Mother’s and Father’s Day to join that list. Hallmark takes the brunt of the blame for this supposed happening, primarily due to the fact that social standards dictate that most observed occasions, be it birthdays or graduations or weddings or funerals, are worthy of a note to express our feelings on it. Often, this stands as the only reason for the purchase of a card; without, greeting card companies would be worthless. And with an estimated 145 million cards sent around the world every year, would it be so out of the question for the these companies to embellish some holidays with the need for a card to congratulate or commemorate an occasion? Whether these exist as a real marketing ruse or not (Hallmark, for their part, adamantly denies their involvement in this supposed scheme), the gross sales numbers from Valentine’s Day overall and the company’s 1,300 choices of greeting cards produced clearly demonstrate their capitalizing on the opportunity. For all the fuss over the holiday, there is a significant amount of anti-consumerism that is connected with it. $13 billion is spent annually, but an Association for Consumer Research report found that this gift purchase is carried “out of duty, not devotion.” But why the compulsive requirement? Analysts strike this one up to what they label as “reactance.” According to this social psychology, consumers believe that they have the free will to come to their own decisions about purchases. However, as The Atlantic puts it, “when society, or Hallmark, or our high-maintenance partner” says that we should act a specific way on a specific day, then we feel that our freedom to choose has been restricted. As with most restrictions, the more that we feel the other option–not having to dress up and reserve a dinner table, not having to run out to the store in a frenzy for those chocolates your honey will be expecting– is out of reach, the more we’ll want to run towards that direction. So really, it’s not your fault you’re rebelling against the concept of a commercialized day, it’s society and your brain. (No, can’t exactly guarantee this explanation will suffice should you argue it to your significant other.)

So is Valentine’s Day an excuse to shower in/be showered with gifts from a better half, turned into a completely cheapened display geared more towards a day of boosted profits rather than sincere affection for loved ones, a day out of force rather than desire? Not wholly. For many, the day does still hold genuine affection. American Express Spending and Saving Tracker noted that an approximate 6 million couples would get engaged on Valentine’s Day, with significant numbers also picking the date for their wedding. So no, while the generic and mass-produced gifts from your local CVS picked up in a last-ditch shopping trip may not be the most of romantic gestures, the fact remains that they were still bought and given on an occasion that’s designated for showing others your love. And isn’t that the real point to the day, that genuine show of affection in itself far more significant than any tangible present you could receive?