January is a cold gray month. A time to recover after the bustle at the end of the year. Many take up new projects and ambitions. We all forget to write the correct two digits at the end of the date. Though Martin Luther King Day offers an important opportunity for education, contemplation, and revisitation, most people do not exchange gifts on this holiday. However, as we enter the shortest month of the year, we ask a groundhog about the weather. This month offers something which none of the others can boast. A perfect, four week structure, with a little spontaneous spice thrown in every four years. Named after the Roman festival of Februa, which involved ritual cleaning. In old English, the poor second month bore an earthy moniker which best translates to “cabbage month.” Not a promising beginning, but we can all agree February captures a little more whimsy with its current name.
However, this hidden gem of a diminutive month to follow the bleak January, offers a celebration quite unlike any other. Valentine’s Day, a holiday almost entirely constructed in its modern iteration by the corporate world intent on selling products, rests halfway through the month, nestles itself squarely in the middle of the month.
Valentine’s Day represents one of the fascinating aspects of the modern “Western” holiday calendar. For the most part, the holidays popular today, occur at the same time of year as ancient traditions. There is a rich and nuanced history of how this series of reimaginings and renamings came to be. In the shortest version, this practice appears all over history. When one city state conquered another, the sun deities of the two previously separate cultures merged into one figure. The festivals, frequently strategically scheduled to mark important agriculture of celestial events, took on new meanings while retaining the same general time frame. Such is the tale of Valentine’s Day.
In Ancient Rome, the holiday Lupercalia fell at a similar time of year. This festival celebrated fertility, fitting given the proximity to planting season. The Romans dedicated themselves to Faunus, an agricultural god, as well as to the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, and the wolf who nourished and protected them as infants. The eponymous Lupercus, a god of sexuality, received his own attention during the course of the festivities. The details vary in different accounts, but most include sacrifices, as well as young men running naked through the streets of the city, flicking strips of goat hide at women. The maidens believed that such contact brought better fertility upon them. Communal matchmaking, sometimes at random, brought couples together to ward off evil spirits. While some of the details have changed, the overt sexuality and focus on heteronormative monogamous couples seems somehwat consistent over the millenia.
The namesake himself, Saint Valentine, lived in the 200s ACE, a time period in which the Roman empire had criminalized Christianity. Valentine allegedly assisted Christians facing persecution and conducted Christian marriage ceremonies. After imprisonment, he refused to recant his beliefs, and consequently Emperor Claudius II beheaded him. Prior to his death, he prayed with a blind young woman and assisted her in recovering her sight. As is often the case, the textual sources for the details of this man’s life exist exclusively in an explicitly Christian tradition, and as such, all accounts within must be subject to a certain level of scrutiny.
From a lupine and agricultural festival to a martyr, the story still lacks the flowery romance which the day now invokes. In the late 400s ACE, Pope Gelasius I officially denounced Lupercalia, replacing it with a holiday on February 14 commemorating St. Valentine, who had, in the 200 years since his death, claimed the distinction of sainthood.
Over time, the once rather grim tale of martyrdom bloomed into the romantic holiday we know today. In the middle ages, many believed that February 14 marked the beginning of the mating season of birds. St. Valentine’s Day, perhaps blending with some of the associations of the outlawed Lupercalian holiday, gradually became associated with romantic relationships. By 1375, Geoffrey Chaucer casually mentioned the romantic associations of this holiday in verse, implying it to be a quotidian and ubiquitous phenomenon with a generally standardized meaning. Documentation suggests that people exchanged handmade cards with one another, between partners, friends, and family by the 1400s. Five hundred years later, commercial printing enabled the easy purchase and distribution of pre-printed cards.
Marketing companies pounced upon the opportunity to capitalize on this holiday. Campaigns aided in the construction of social norms around the giving of gifts. I will write an entire post on the diamond industry at some point, but the jewelry, candy, floral, restaurant, and apparel industries jumped to catalyze sales under the guise of proving and validating love.
Before we continue, I want to drop a few facts:
Valentine’s Day is a bizarre holiday. It is ok to love it. It is ok to think it’s dumb and refuse to celebrate it. It is ok to be in between these two poles.
Valentine’s Day should be for everyone. All people should have the option to celebrate the love they share with friends, family, partner or partners, and the other people in their lives.
It is not important to give gifts for Valentine’s Day, unless you and the recipients of said gifts want to participate in this holiday in that way.
With that being said, if you are a human who wants to celebrate Valentine’s Day, allow me to suggest these lower waste options which involve fewer single use items and can reduce the footprint of your holiday celebration.
The gift of time spent together, memories created together, and life lived together far exceeds a numeric valuation. If you are not in the same location as your recipient, offering them an experiential gift allows them to enjoy a great time and think fondly of you. Best of all, there’s not red, pink, and white glitter or hastily purchased items which will languish and then find their way to a landfill. The “classic” Valentine’s Day experiential gift is a dinner out, typically at a fancier establishment. There’s nothing wrong with this, if you like it, but here are some alternatives:
**Museum or gallery visit
**Concert, theater, movie, sporting event, or other performance tickets (keeping current covid guidelines in mind)
**Takeout and streaming service of your choice
**A picnic, outdoors if weather permits; indoors if there’s another blizzard
**A hike, walk, or other outdoor activity, if weather and interest permit
**A lesson or class together
**A donation to a charitable organization on behalf of the recipient
**An act of service: This might look like arranging time to volunteer together for a shared cause or it might take the form of doing something for your recipient.
Regrettably Valentine’s Day conjures images of certain stereotypical tangible gifts. If you like these, feel free to enjoy them. However, if you are open to considering other options, I hope these are helpful. As I mentioned in my Holiday Gift Guide (insert hyperlink), I advocate shopping secondhand or from local artisans and craftspeople or trying your hand at making gifts, if you have the time and bandwidth for it.
**Cards: Rather than looking through pre-made cards trying to find one which perfectly captures the sentiment you are trying to express, you might try making your own cards. Use of scrap cloth, thread, yarn, paint, cardboard, paper, or whatever you have lying around can create a unique piece of art. A simple heartfelt note jotted on plain paper can carry great significance, if the idea of crafting is not appealing to you. I recently visited the Turnip Green Creative Reuse Center in Nashville, TN. I found myself really inspired by a section of the store filled with cards for reuse. Many people jot a note only on one side of a card, meaning that the side which contains no writing may be separated and used as a postcard. Using what you might already have lying around and repurposing other items can help to reduce the footprint of the holiday.
**Flowers: Instead of cut flowers which are flown to florists from fields hundreds or even thousands of miles away, consider a few alternatives. A living plant can be the gift that keeps on giving with years of lush verdure in your home. Potted herbs offer a plant which can be a feast for both the eyes and the stomach. Locally cut flowers, dried flowers, wreaths, floral inspired rendering by local artists, or homemade floral inspired crafts can all fill this void with more sustainable options.
**Chocolates: Honestly, these are great! I love consumable gifts. However, we can expand the category to include all desserts, coffee, tea, condiments, and other food items which your recipient might enjoy. Homemade treats, items from local bakers and makers, and sustainably sourced cocoa and coffee products offer great alternatives to the shiny, red, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates which are taking up major real estate on grocery store shelves this time of year.
**Jewelry: If you choose to shop for jewelry, explore your area for locally owned shops and local makers. As always, I hope we can normalize the giving of secondhand gifts. A piece of jewelry that matches the recipient’s taste is no less meaningful if it is pre-loved.
**Lingerie/Lounge Clothing: If you’ve read my posts about Halloween costumes and “ugly” Christmas sweaters, you know that I strongly object to the disposable consumerist tendencies created by the fast fashion industry. Purchasing items with the intention of only wearing them a handful of times, or indeed only once, ignores the human and environmental cost of distribution, production, and ultimate disposal of these garments. If you find yourself considering buying Valentine’s inspired clothing items, purchase consciously, understanding how often you will wear them, and what will become of them when they no longer serve your needs. Instead, you may find that you can create an exciting outfit using the clothes already in your closet.
**Teddy bears/stuffed animals: As with clothing, strive to purchase consciously, understanding what the future will hold for this gift. If your recipient likes stuffed animals and is likely to enjoy this one for years to come, this might be an appropriate gift. Generally, these bears make their way off the shelves and into a landfill in record time. If you want to give a cozy gift, consider a sustainably or locally made or secondhand blanket, pillow, candle, or other home product.
**Gift baskets: Rather than a commercially made basket wrapped in cellophane filled with an assortment of items your recipient may or may not like, you may wish to try your hand at creating a custom assortment of items which you know your recipient will like and use. These could be food, beverage, personal care, home, craft, or other items which suit that person’s lifestyle and preferences. Packing these items in a repurposed box or reusable bag cuts down on the waste as well.
Ultimately, I would encourage you to do as much or as little for the holiday as you would like. If you choose to celebrate by exchanging cards or gifts, go for it as consciously as you can! If, after thinking through some other options, you decide that a “classic” gift will be most meaningful, that is ok too. As with most topics I discuss, the real burden ought to fall on the giant corporations perpetuating environmentally irresponsible and socially unconscionable business practices, rather than any one individual consumer. A thoughtful gesture conveys far more than an expensive item. Of course, with a holiday that evolved over thousands of years and included a wide swath of various traditions at different times, you can feel free to create your own interpretation that will be meaningful to both you and your partner or partners, family, friends, or whomever you choose to celebrate with this year!
Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.