Falling for you: Valentine’s Day, cultural imperialism and commercial tyranny

By Caitlin Allard

14th February, 2016: my boyfriend and I entered our favourite Italian restaurant, excited for our first ever ‘proper’ Valentine’s Day and the promised, oh so joyous, celebration of love it would entail.

Instead of a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, we were faced with unending rows of tables for two, stringently organised ready for a militaristic Valentine’s operation. The waiters were stressed and distracted, the menu changed without our knowledge to a compulsory set menu (no cheesy garlic bread allowed) and the prices had risen to extortionate heights. Gradually, more and more miserable looking middle-aged couples trickled into the room, and a sea of greyish ennui settled across the restaurant. Clearly, coming out together on Valentine’s Day was, at least for these people, merely a compulsory, token love gesture.

Valentine’s Day began as a Christian feast day honouring the 3rd Century Roman Saint Valentinus. Because so little is known about him, or indeed her, in 1969 the Catholic Church removed his name from their calendar of Roman saints to be celebrated officially. Many people and myths are linked back to the Saint. One popular story suggests Saint Valentine of Rome was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry, as well as for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. Legend has it that he healed the daughter of his jailer and wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as farewell before his execution – slightly more morbid than our take on the day.

It only became associated with romance once the tradition of courtly love flourished in the 14th century, partially thanks to Geoffrey Chaucer. 18th century England is where it took off commercially as lovers began sending flowers, confectionary and cards to one another. In the rest of Europe, Saint Valentine’s Keys were given as a symbol to lovers to unlock the giver’s heart, as well as to ward off epilepsy – Saint Valentine’s Malady.

18th century England’s approach has been amplified extortionately, transforming from the hand-made secrets between lovers to mass-produced gift cards and huge displays of ‘love’. In the UK, the average spend on cards, flowers, chocolates and jewellery for Valentine’s Day per year is £1.3bn, equating to £25 per person. The average spend is going up rapidly; in America, the average spend per person in 2010 was $100, and by 2016 was $147. As the idea of Valentine’s Day becomes more prominent, so does the pressure to spend. Yet money does not equate to love: it turns love into a competition within western capitalism.  Great for the economy, but not so great for the heart or wallet.

The day itself has helped spread ideas of western capitalism globally. China and South Korea are now the biggest spenders on Valentine’s Day, whilst 60% of Singaporeans stated they spend between $100 and $500 in the run up to the holiday each year. For big businesses, Valentine’s Day is a weapon to spread western ideas for more money, an arm to extend cultural imperialism across the world.

This is a dangerous task. Although clearly successful commercially in some areas of Asia, the Christian origins of the holiday have caused much tension in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, in 2011 the Islamic Development Department created the nationwide campaign ‘Mind the Valentine’s Day Trap’. This involved raids in hotels to stop unlawful sex between unmarried couples and sending out leaflets to Muslim university students. That year, over 100 couples were arrested for celebrating the holiday. In Saudi Arabia, the selling of roses, red products and love themed cards is banned in the run up to 14th February. In 2014, five of its citizens were sentenced to 39 years in prison as well as 4,500 lashes of the cane because they were found dancing with six women they weren’t married to on Valentine’s Day. There is also widespread hostility towards the day in Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran. Much of this is founded on the Christian tradition behind the holiday, as well as it being described as a ‘decadent western custom’ and the suggestion that it encourages sex outside of marriage. In an age of globalisation, the spread of ideas is hard to stop. A ‘global monoculture’ has been suggested to be on the rise, but diversity still exists. Corporations need to respect this in their persistent message that Valentine’s Day is a necessity to prove love.

To some, 14th February and the notions of love associated with it has become a symbol of freedom. In 2014, universities in Peshawar, Pakistan, clashed over whether Valentine’s Day was wrong in Islamic culture. Liberal students celebrated with red balloons and cake whilst other students rioted to oppose the ideas behind the holiday. Rocks were thrown at one another, and gunshots were fired by both sides. Three students were injured and a dormitory was set alight. Although the capitalist element of the holiday prevails in the west, ideas of freedom to celebrate love within the holiday can be seen more clearly elsewhere.

Other countries have adapted the holiday into ideas of love outside of romance. India’s ‘Parent’s Worship Day’ promotes children celebrating their parents, and Finland’s ‘Friendship Day’ is a celebration of both friends and lovers. Self-love has also been promoted as an alternative to the day, as in South Korea 14th April is known as ‘Black Day’ where single people come together to eat jajangmyeon — a Chinese-Korean noodle dish with in chunky black bean sauce, topped with pork and vegetables. Alternative, more inclusive celebrations of love are healthier, and cause less backlash. In China, 11th November marks the unofficial ‘Singles’ Day’, a day created in opposition to Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day as a symbol of free expression of love is beneficial. The widespread pressure to spend beyond one’s means to prove love is not so good. Neither are companies using the day to spread western values for personal gain without respect for the culture they are dealing with. For Valentine’s Day in the UK to become meaningful again, it must be steered away from large amounts of spending into thoughtful expressions of love, such as making your own cards, or freeing up your evening to cook a meal together. Furthermore, we can expand the day’s meaning. We can celebrate love between friends and family, which, ultimately, is of equal importance to romantic love. Make a card for your mum, your best friend, or cook dinner for your family.

Valentine’s Day, as it currently is, is redundant. We should make it a celebration of love in its entirety, not the isolating holiday plagued with commercialism that it currently is.

Photograph: SteveR via Flickr

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