In the weeks leading up to Feb. 14, consumers are bombarded with commercials and advertisements for chocolates, restaurants and business venues especially catered to the season of romantic love. Couples plan for this special occasion, with celebrations ranging from a fancy dinner for two to extravagant gift giving to simple card exchanges. Others, less enthralled by the idea of a holiday founded in romance, dub Valentine’s Day “Singles Awareness (or Appreciation) Day,” appropriately abbreviated to SAD.
But while many view Valentine’s Day as less of a “real” holiday and more a product of blatant commercialism and Hallmark products, Valentine’s Day has a surprisingly long and multicultural history.
Legends of Saint Valentine
Valentine’s Day, named after one (or more) Saint Valentine, finds its beginnings in ancient Roman and Christian tradition.
“Valentine’s Day originate[d] in the Middle Ages,” wrote English professor Michelle Karnes, who specializes in medievalism, in an e-mail to The Daily. “Or at least Valentine’s Day as it’s associated with love. The cult of Saint Valentine is much older–Valentine was a Christian martyr of the third century, one who began to be commemorated by the church on Feb. 14 around the fifth century.”
However, the exact story of Saint Valentine is confusing, entrenched deeply in the depths of age-old myth and legend. One popular legend involves an imprisoned Valentine, who, in love with his jailor’s daughter, sent her the first “valentine” card before his death. The letter was signed “from your Valentine,” a signature that is still popularly used today.
According to Karnes, Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for writing “The Canterbury Tales,” made the first reference to Valentine’s Day as a holiday celebrating love. In the Middle Ages, people believed that Feb. 14 was the first day of the bird mating season, a day appropriate for the young to express their love.
“As far as we know, Chaucer made the first reference to Valentine’s Day as a holiday that’s above love, as a day when lovers choose their mates,” Karnes said. “He makes the reference in one of his dream visions, the ‘Parliament of Fowls.’ There, he’s referring specifically to birds who choose their mates every year on St. Valentine’s Day.”
Valentine’s Day became an occasion for friends and lovers to exchange handwritten letters of affection during the 17th and 18th centuries. By the end of the 18th century, printed, ready-made cards replaced letters. They were a convenient way to express one’s feelings during a time when public, direct love confessions were discouraged.
While Valentine’s Day cards are still popular–according to the Greeting Card Association, Valentine’s Day is the second largest card-sending holiday–shows of affection between couples have expanded to include dinner dates, chocolates and flowers.
Chinese Valentine’s Day (Double-Seventh Festival)
The idea of a holiday celebrating love is not exclusive to Western countries. The Chinese have traditionally celebrated a holiday similar to Valentine’s Day called the Double Seventh Festival, or Qi Xi Jie.
Qi Xi Jie is based on a Chinese folktale involving a cowherd and a spinning maid that fall madly in love. Tragically, they are separated for eternity by the spinning maid’s mother, a goddess, who created the Milky Way as a barrier to divide them. But on the seventh day of the seventh month, a flock of magpies create a bridge for the lovers to unite for one night.
Traditionally, the Double-Seventh Festival was an occasion to celebrate women’s works, rather than to encourage young and rebellious romance.
“Once upon a time, mainly women came up to [the festival] to plead for skills in embroidering and weaving,” Chinese professor Haiyan Lee said. “It was a time for women to congregate, as they usually didn’t get to see other women all that often.”
Although the Double-Seventh Festival folktale is a “pan-Chinese legend,” according to Lee, Chinese Valentine’s Day is actually no longer as commonly observed, especially with the rising popularity of Western Valentine’s Day practices in urban areas.
“Many Chinese will regard the Western version of Valentine’s Day as more authentic,” said Lee. “The idea of a ‘Chinese Valentine’s Day’ itself is rather paradoxical because while the Chinese had love stories such as the [Double-Seventh myth], these stories precisely exist because there was no romantic love, given the traditional family structure then.”
“Now, romantic love has become entrenched in modern China [because it] has embraced Western ideals,” she added.
Valentine’s Day and White Day in Japan
As in China, Western Valentine’s Day practices have been incorporated into Japanese culture, but with a twist. On Valentine’s Day, also celebrated on Feb. 14, women present men with homemade chocolates, and the men return the favor a month later on an occasion called White Day. In recent years, this tradition has expanded to include women giving chocolates not only to their lovers, but to other people as well.
“[Valentine’s Day] used to be considered an opportunity for women to give their love to men,” history professor Jun Uchida said in an e-mail to The Daily. “But in recent decades women have begun to give chocolate to their male bosses, colleagues, even teachers (called “giri choco” or “chocolate out of obligation”).”
Valentine’s Day at Stanford
Fondly dubbed “Singles Awareness (or Appreciation) Day” by many Stanford students, Valentine’s Day tends to have a relatively low impact on students’ lives, especially given its arrival in the hectic middle of the quarter and the high frequency of singles on campus.
“It comes at a kind of bad time,” said James Acevedo ’13. “People have been so busy with midterms; it’s hard for anyone to plan.”
Nonetheless, Valentine’s Day is indeed existent on the Stanford campus, be it Resident Assistants giving single roses to their residents, or couples at Stanford taking time out of their busy schedules to commemorate the holiday.
“Last year, we had dinner in San Francisco,” Avecedo said. “This year, we’ll do dinner, too.”
Some couples go above and beyond the simple dinner date, spending large sums of money on presents for their significant others, planning unique love-filled outings or simply incorporating cultural traditions to enhance the romantic experience.
“Although there’s no rule or Mexican tradition about it, there is something special and very romantic about serenading your partner with a mariachi serenata,” said Laura Pulido ’13, a member of Stanford’s mariachi ensemble. “It’s acknowledged as something romantic that everyone can appreciate.”