Barack and Michelle Obama, the former U.S. president and first lady, on Tuesday tweeted Valentine’s Day greetings to each other. A C-Span reporter tweeted a picture of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at an upscale grocery store buying a Valentine’s Day bouquet for his wife, Karen.
Later, Pence tweeted at the reporter: “Don’t ruin the surprise. Ready to share our 34th Valentine’s Day with my valentine, Karen.”
In Pakistan on Monday, the Islamabad High Court placed a ban on the celebration of Valentine’s Day because a citizen petitioned for it, saying the February 14 holiday promotes “immorality, nudity and indecency.” Public displays of affection are forbidden in Pakistan because they are seen as un-Islamic.
Indonesia and Saudi Arabia also banned celebration of the holiday that honors love of all kinds, but especially romantic love.
Even in places where people are free to celebrate, the holiday has its critics — most notably, single people who say the day just serves to highlight their unpartnered status.
But the torture of lonely hearts is a newer development in the holiday’s violent past. According to legend, the day’s namesake St. Valentine, a Roman priest, was beaten, stoned and beheaded for conducting Christian marriage ceremonies sometime in the third century. However, Catholic histories contain numerous martyrs named Valentine, leaving open the question of which Valentine is responsible for the modern-day celebration.
Pope Gelasius in 496 established February 14 as St. Valentine’s feast day. Because of the legend about Christian marriages, over time the day has taken on romantic connotations.
It is even mentioned in the writings of 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who is one of the earliest writers known to have referenced the day. He spoke of it in several poems as the day when birds traditionally choose their mates.
But the timing of the day coincides with a less innocent celebration: that of Lupercalia, the Roman feast of fertility. Lupercalia was celebrated with naked men or near-naked men running through the city streets, striking women’s hands with leather thongs to allegedly improve fertility.
By the 19th century, Valentine’s Day had become the day to declare one’s love with elaborate, handmade cards and handwritten sentiments. By the beginning of the 20th century, mass-produced Valentine cards had become big business.
The U.S.-based Hallmark Cards company, which dominates the greeting card industry, produced its first Valentine card in 1913.
The National Retail Federation says American consumers spent $4.3 billion on jewelry, $2 billion on flowers and $1 billion on cards for Valentine’s Day this year. Valentine’s Day is also a big commercial holiday in Japan, where women give men chocolates and men reciprocate with gifts of even higher value a month later, on March 14. South Koreans have a similar practice.
In Ireland, those seeking love might go to Dublin’s Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, which houses some relics believed to have come from St. Valentine.
In Finland, the day is known as “Friends’ Day,” and is centered more on platonic friendships than romantic ones.
And, of course, there is a counterculture for singles feeling left out on the big day. Girlfriends wish each other a “happy Galentines’ Day” (“gal” being a euphemism for “girl”), blogs publish anti-Valentine’s song playlists and lists of comforting movies to watch, and bars host anti-Valentine’s parties.
And, in maybe the biggest Valentine’s backlash of all, students at Nanjing University in China concocted “Singles’ Day” in the 1990s. Celebrated November 11, the day has grown into Asia’s largest single shopping day of the year, with sales of $17.8 billion.