As Valentine’s Day approaches, advertisements and shop displays bring our attention to heart-shaped chocolate boxes, red roses, cards espousing sentiments of adoration, and romantic, candlelit meals. There is something very special about celebrating our feelings with someone we love, and it is wonderful to have a day recognizing this. However, to me, the holiday can be superficial and non-environmentally friendly.
I worked as a florist, and we made hundreds of red rose bouquets for the day. I appreciated the meaning of a red rose as a symbol of love, but after preparing the same types of roses for a week leading up to the holiday, I began to see the gesture as unimaginative. Along with this, I also learnt that, depending on one’s location, the roses were not grown locally, and tended to be flown in from foreign countries, leaving a large carbon footprint. In fact, some roses probably travel farther than some of their recipients ever will.
Yet, the symbolism associated with Valentine’s Day gifts means that people will spend money to ensure they are saying they love someone in the “red, heart-shaped, cherub-laden, right way.” Although those of us who are raised in societies where the holiday is celebrated and see these symbols every year, I think we develop a longing for them when we are vulnerable, hormonally charged teenagers. Anyone without a significant partner, in my high school at least, had to face the rejection of not receiving a gift, card, or red roses on the day. Thus, the typical gifts become representative of acceptance and love and, therefore, desirable objects.
Yet, from where do these symbols originate? The history of Valentine’s Day is unclear, but it is thought to have its foundations in the ancient Roman celebration the Lupercalia, though the evidence for this association is highly questionable. The holiday is associated with a Catholic saint named Valentine or Valentinus, but there are two or three known saints of this name, all of whom were martyred sometime in the late Roman period.
Returning to the Lupercalia, this festival was mentioned by the Greek writer, Plutarch (mid-first century AD to early second century AD) in his work, the Roman Questions he notes that the Lupercalia was celebrated in the month of February on a day called Februata, which he said meant “to purify.”
From what we can piece together from this and other ancient sources, the holiday began with an animal sacrifice in a cave dedicated to Romulus and Remus, the former being the mythical founder of Rome. These twin brothers were suckled by a wolf or lupus in Latin; hence, the name Lupercalia. Following the sacrifice, the male youths who attended it would run through the city of Rome wearing loin cloths and holding strips of leather from the sacrificed animal. They would strike the ground to purify the land for a healthy crop. In all likelihood, it was a way of ritually preparing the land for the growing season so that it would be fecund for everyone.
Apparently, the ritual could assist in human fertility, too. Women who wanted to become pregnant would jump in front of the youths to be whipped so they would be fertile.
Now, Valentine’s gifts are mass-produced often with materials that are harmful to the environment.
The Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy of this time purported that the heart or chest was the seat of the emotions. So, it is possible that this is when the heart became a symbol of love because this was the space within the body where the euphoria of love and the pangs of heart-break is felt.
However, it was not until the Middle Ages—when courtly love was commonly represented in poems, paintings, tapestries, and manuscript illustrations—that we begin to see the heart as a visual representation of love. One of the first known images of the heart is found in a thirteenth century French poem, Romancing the Pear. Since the pear is heart-shaped, it is likely it represented the heart and love. The first image I am aware of that shows broken hearts is from a 15thcentury manuscript by Meister Caspar. It depicts Venus with a sword piercing a heart, and a young knight kneeling before her. Surrounding him are images of hearts placed in medieval torture devises being crushed, stretched, pierced, sawn in half, and burnt.
From the 18th century we begin to see hearts and cupids on Valentine’s cards, beginning the commercialization of the holiday. Now, Valentine’s gifts are mass-produced often with materials that are harmful to the environment. Aside from their carbon footprint, red roses are grown on industrial farms many that use chemical fertilizers and pesticides that pollute the surrounding land and water. Paper cards tend to be made with “new” paper rather than recycled paper, and so can contribute to forest degradation. Plastic coatings on boxes mean they cannot be recycled in some areas. The mass-produced gifts, such as stuffed animals and collectables, tend to be imported, which adds to air and water pollution. The majority of these items will also end-up in landfills and over-polluted oceans. So, are we really saying we love someone when we purchase goods that add to environmental pollution?
What can we do? I am not suggesting that we abandon Valentine’s Day, particularly during a pandemic when any gesture of recognition will mean the world to those who are stressed, depressed, and overwhelmed.
Last week, I led my first online workshop teaching students how to make environmentally friendly heart-shaped wreaths. There were several benefits to the event.
1. It brought people together from different areas of the world and provided a social outlet during lockdown situations, providing respite from loneliness.
2. Non-historians had the opportunity to learn about aspects of history normally not studied in schools and universities.
3. Attendees learnt a technique promoting sustainable floral design. For example, the wreath base was made from a refurbished wire hanger formed it into a heart-shape. This base can be reused and recycled. The flowers and greenery were tied to the base with raffia, which is compostable.
4. I invited participants to collect flowers and greenery from houseplants, kitchen herbs (sage, rosemary, and thyme), and/or their surrounding area to provide a minimal carbon footprint. Sourcing their materials locally also gave them an excuse to wander outside among the trees and plants that grow in their local area. This also has benefits for mental and physical wellbeing.
5. Constructing objects provided a creative outlet, which those who attended found fun as well as therapeutic. Working with the flowers and greenery provided them with pleasant sensory experiences that helped to calm them from the stress they were facing.
6. They have a beautiful, unique, and environmentally friendly Valentine’s Day gift and/or decoration.
Thus, why not say you love someone with a gift that is creative, appreciates your surroundings, and helps to make the world better for future generations. If you are interested in learning about the history of floral design and making environmentally sustainable crafts and flowers, then please have a look at the booking details on this website.
Dr. Patty Baker taught classics, ancient history and archaeology at the University of Kent, UK for twenty years and specializes in ancient medicine, Roman gardens and floral design. She is currently a history instructor at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. She is the founder of Pax in Natura, an online teaching forum that explores what we can learn from ancient history and artistic design to explore new approaches to resolving environmental sustainability crises that affect our wellbeing today.