Whether you went over the top with a lavish trip to Paris or you stayed in, made a nice dinner and watched some cheesy rom-coms with your significant other, hopefully all those with love in their life took some time out yesterday to express their appreciation of that very notion – that they are in love with someone, and someone loves them back.
While its roots date back to some strange pagan rituals involving flogging people with animal skins – as an alarming number of our modern traditions seem to hearken back to – the modern holiday we know as Valentine’s Day can be linked to the “courting” ceremonies of the Middle Ages, and was further romanticized by historic poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
In the centuries since, the concept of Valentine’s Day – whether it’s the Western adaption held on Feb. 14 each year or any number of Eastern variants which occur all throughout the calendar year – has remained relatively consistent in terms of its true intentions. But why do we do it? Why do humans seek comfort in consistent rituals like Valentine’s Day?
“Rituals help bring people together. They create unity, create cohesion,” said assistant professor of sociology at Rhode Island College Geoff Harkness. “Holidays like Valentine’s Day help to reinforce our collective beliefs and collective behaviors.”
Harkness and sociologists like him study Valentine’s Day as a social construct. While the feeling of love and mating with a partner are more deeply and long engrained into our psychology and physiology than Valentine’s Day, Harkness pointed out how the concept of romantic love is a more recent development in our culture.
“It's a relatively new phenomenon,” he said. “Some of that is reinforced through these holidays and what not. Back in the old days people married for different reasons and got together for different reasons than today.”
Those reasons often included political posturing or economic factors and rarely involved whether or not the two people thought they were right for one another. Today, at least in the Western world, people only typically get married after at least a few months of courtship, dating and finding out as much information about the other person as possible before deciding mutually to be wed.
Harkness said that, ironically enough, the modern variation of Valentine’s Day has actually brought back that old element of what marriage used to be about into modern relationships.
“I think the irony is that the commercialism of the holiday brings it back to the old idea of an economical exchange between men and women, rather than a romantic thing,” he said. “Where there's a commercialization of the holiday and you sort of feel obligated to buy the flowers, the candy, whatever it is, there's an irony that we're again commodifying a relationship that is in some ways traditional.”
At the same time, Harkness said he wouldn’t be letting his academic cynicism get in the way of using the holiday to express his own feelings of love.
“At the end of the day, despite being an academic I am a bit of a hopeless romantic, and I will certainly be buying my wife some flowers,” he said. “I hope some people aren’t so cynical that they can’t get past that [irony] and tap into the emotion that is so important.”
Sociologically, humans want to belong to groups. They want to be included and feel as though they have friends, allies and partners, and that they aren’t going through the many challenges of life alone. For some, unfortunately, Valentine’s Day is a reminder of exactly what they don’t have.
“There's certainly a FOMO [fear of missing out] factor to this and I think the downside is it makes people feel like they're outsiders if they don’t get to participate,” Harkness said.
However, he added that people who don’t have a Valentine may be pushed internally to put themselves out there and try to achieve the thing that is seen as societally valuable.
“So that bad feeling also serves to some degree a function,” Harkness continued. “Because ultimately what we as a society want is for people to pair up and reproduce and make more people so we can continue onward.”
Harkness, who obtained his PhD in 2010, said he doesn’t delve into the personal lives of his students too closely, so he can’t say from personal experience whether or not the culture of Valentine’s Day has changed on par with the rapid changes that have occurred in the modern youth dating world – changes which center around forgoing marriage for self-discovery, short-term flings and group dating.
Rather Harkness believes that, since Valentine’s Day persists to this day and is still very much a part of modern romantic culture, it cannot be argued that our society does not value the day, or the meaning behind it.
“Despite the changes we see in this tradition, it's stronger than ever. To me that's interesting,” he said. “The fact it endures signals to us that it's very important.”