Did Florists and Candy Companies Really Invent Valentine’s Day?

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For a good deal of Americans who feel the need to shell out some serious bucks for flowers, candy, dinner, and everything else that comes along with Valentine’s Day celebrations, it’s easy to conclude that the holiday itself was probably concocted with commercial interests in mind. We all have our little theories when it comes to holidays like these: St. Patrick’s Day is clearly a ploy for beer companies, Easter has been hijacked to sell chocolate eggs, and Halloween may be the most obvious marketing stunt for Hershey’s and Mars that ever existed.

So when Valentine’s Day rolls around, it’s easy to be skeptical of its origins. Particularly when each year we are smashed with advertising for heart-shaped boxes of Russell Stover chocolates, diamond-clad jewelry, and red-and-white floral arrangements delivered by your local florist. You don’t need to be Fox Mulder to think there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot to separate you from the money in your bank account.

And there is evidence to support the idea that Valentine’s Day is a commercial construct; we simply need to look at the numbers. For example, this year, it’s expected that Valentine’s Day celebrations will generate almost $19 billion in economic activity, or $142.31 for the average American, according to the National Retail Federation. Spending will be the heaviest among those ages 25 to 34, with more than half of respondents reporting that they plan on buying candy and more than a third saying they are going to buy flowers and spend money on a special night out.

“It’s encouraging to see consumers show interest in spending on gifts and Valentine’s Day-related merchandise,” said Matthew Shay, the NRF’s CEO, per Mediapost. “And a good sign for consumer sentiment as we head into 2015.”

With that kind of data on hand, we can clearly say that Valentine’s Day is a big moneymaker for a handful of industries. In an article from last year, Business Insider dug into the numbers to see which specific companies were responsible for really giving Valentine’s Day wings, and there are some names populating the list that wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to most people. Tiffany & Co., Hershey’s, Victoria’s Secret, and others are only a few, but there are also other peripheral organizations that use holidays to boost profitability, like the U.S. Postal Service.

Even with an obvious profit motivation, is there any other evidence that holidays like Valentine’s Day were fabricated by commercial powers? Not exactly. You could say that the holiday itself has been overly commercialized, much like Christmas or Halloween. But Valentine’s Day is not a complete fabrication put together by the royalty of the floral industry, chocolate barons, or the menacing diamond overlords from De Beers. Instead, the real history of the holiday can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome.

NPR dove into the extensive history of the holiday in a 2011 article and found that the true roots of Valentine’s Day go all the way back to a Roman celebration called Lupercalia, which occurred annually from February 13 to 15. As a part of a bizarre fertility ceremony, men would sacrifice dogs and goats, skin them, then whip women with the hides. Further along in history, Roman Emperor Claudius II had two men named Valentine executed on February 14 — both of whom were martyred by the Catholic church — giving us the name St. Valentine’s Day.

Further into the future, the holiday gained popularity as people began exchanging handmade cards, or valentines, and gifts. Finally, Valentine’s Day took its true commercial form in the early 20th century, when Hallmark started mass-producing said cards, kicking off the modern love fest that we know today. As we can see, the history is quite expansive, but the overt and crass commercialization of Valentine’s Day is little more than a century old.

We’ve come a long way from animal sacrifices and executions, but Valentine’s Day is still a very big deal for a huge number of people. Nineteen billion in spending doesn’t lie. Even as many take a cynical approach to the holiday, it’s big business, and many industries rely on the annual spike in sales to keep their businesses going. So feel free to remove your tinfoil hat and enjoy some chocolate, armed with the knowledge that the origin of Valentine’s Day is more about sacrifice than about inventing a way to bolster flower sales.

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