Saint Valentine’s Day, wrote Chaucer more than 600 years ago in his poem “The Parliament of Fowls,” is the day on which all the birds would congregate to find their respective mate. According to medieval folklore, February constituted mating season for birds. Saint Valentine, a minor saint with little historical or liturgical significance – and certainly little interest in the Art of Romance – thus really only by accident (or luck?) fell victim to having his name associated with red roses and blue violets for centuries to come.
By the middle of the 18th century, exchanging cards, flowers and soon numerous other tokens of affection had become a staple of romantic expression on February 14, particularly within the Anglophone world. The advance of Valentine’s Day would soon prove unstoppable around the globe, however. For lovers and loners alike, the meaning associated with an otherwise fairly inconspicuous day in mid-February would change forever.
“Lovebirds” mate for life – and have been used as a cultural sign to connote romance for centuries.
In 2016, Valentine’s Day- with all its associated cultural signs and codes- is still very much inescapable. In the week preceding the event, even the briefest of coffee runs will inevitably lead one past a barrage of street signs embellished by hearts, flower-tinged shop windows, and adverts covered in rosy script that promise a perfect Valentine’s Day with or for your loved one. Cultural codes of Love and Romance tend to evolve slowly. They are deeply ingrained in overarching, often foundational social concepts encompassing ideas about sexuality, gender, and procreation. Resistance, however, is on the rise.
Notions of love and romance have, after all, shifted more dramatically since the days of chivalrous pursuit than dominant Valentine’s Day signs would have you believe. Even in the age of Tinder and OK Cupid, love and romance are far from dead, but ritualised gift-giving seems to have – for at least a significant part of the population – lost much of the magic it once possessed. Even happy couples have become increasingly disenchanted with the idea of Valentine’s. Derided as a “Hallmark Holiday,” a day that merely capitalises on outdated ideas of Love rather than celebrating it, February 14, today, is met with at least as much cynicism as anticipation.
The reason for this is as obvious as it is noteworthy: Romantic relationships play a different role in people’s lives today than they did in generations past. They are less defined by ritual – i.e. courtship, marriage – than by practicality and mutual partnership. “Flexibility” and “mobility” have become keywords not just in the world of employment, but beyond. In a society in which the individual has to adapt constantly to social and economic changes, adaptability becomes a key virtue not only for the individual, but also for relationships. This also means that love has become more diverse. Rather than fitting into a prototypical social script prescribed by tradition and cultural norms, love is emergently coded as adaptable and changing, rather than fixed and uncompromising.
Valentine’s Day is all about ritual, and for many is becoming harder to reconcile with the emergent meanings of 21st century romance. Valentine’s cards in recent years have started to reflect a paradox in which love is still highly relevant, but has dramatically shifted in its cultural associations. Anti-Valentine’s Cards that read “Happy consumer-driven and trivial interpretation of love Day” or “Insert gooey sentiment here – Happy Valentine’s Day!” are indicative of a growing detachment from the sentimentaility associated with the holiday. Love in 2016 is not spiritual and sublime, but mundane and grounded. Ironically, this “disenchantment of Romance,” is a historical process whose origins have often been associated with Chaucer, too. Consciously and demonstratively treating Valentine’s Day as a non-event, then, seems to prove that it’s cultural associations have gone very much full circle since the Middle Ages.
Love in 2016 – cheese and bacon replace flowers and chocolates as symbols of affection. Mundane objects code love as practical and link it to lived-in reality.
In 2015, Valentine’s Day spending reached £1.9bn in the UK and approached $19bn in the US. A growing fraction of this, however, can be attributed to couples and singles alike spending money on “Anti-Valentine’s Day” gifts and items. Even couples who don’t appreciate 18th century codes of romance enjoy a nice gift, be it a box of chocolates or a spontaneous trip to Paris. Brands seeking to cash in on the Valentine’s Day craze needn’t worry about a diminishing market; they just need to adapt to new semiotic codes. Spending money on Anti-Valentine’s Day items might be an unsuccessful strategy to diminish the overwhelming influence of Valentine’s as a cultural signpost for love and romance, and certainly won’t help make it go away any time soon. It does, however, shift its meaning by updating the cultural signifiers of love and romance.