Surviving Valentines Day. The Secret History of Valentines Day

“Cupid rhymes with stupid!” 
“Valentines Day isn’t about romance anymore it’s about rules and doing what you’re told.” Jaded Romantic
“… commercialised to death.”
“Valentines Day sucks because of the pressure to buy gifts which are heavily marked up and way too expensive..  Ads tell us spending money is romantic.”
“People shouldn’t do nice things for you on days that are socially acceptable, they’re just obeying the rules and trying to fit me into a social mould. I’m an aromantic.”
“I’m not religious or a Captialist so I won’t celebrate it!”

Woah! Hang on a minute! Such crushing cacophonies  of disenchantment disavowing romance and Valentines Day! Disillusionment looms large like a cloud blocking out Cupid’s arrow above the inner west.

Men spoke of “emotional scars’ and many women I spoke to said they had never had a man do anything special for them on Valentines so now they hate Valentines. Unfulfilled expectations on Valentines Day lead to massive disappointment which then led to heartbreak and break ups in a vicious merry-go-round.

Anti-Valentines Day events have capitalised on this mass cynicism and this year you can watch horror movies all night at Newtown’s Dendy cinema in an orgy of “Up Yours” to love and romance!


Why Rituals and Romance are good for us and our relationships


As a sex therapist and relationship counsellor, everyday I see the importance of  romance and ritual in happy relationships of my clients. Romance acts as the bonding and commitment glue that keeps two humans bonded for the long term. Romance is a magical alchemy between the ecstatic highs and lows of arousal and  passionate love  and the peaceful bonding of companionate love. However antiquated romance might seem, it is what has  guaranteed the survival of our species. From an evolutionary standpoint, romance keeps two people together longer, two parents helped guarantee offspring reach adulthood.

This tendency to overlook the celebration of romance with the cynicism towards mass produced greetings and the lack of sincerity in consumer culture can be overcome with hand made gifts or shared experiences. Since early history social exchange rituals that involve gift giving or goods exchange have been deeply ingrained in our discourses of sex and partnership.

Humans are essentially ritualistic creatures, searching narratives to find meaning. Rituals are sets of symbolic languages that operate periodically and pay homage to meaningful parts of our life. Rituals are symbolic ways of expressing emotions in a non verbal fashion. Our instinctive unconscious understands rituals better than our rational consciousness.  We cannot psychologically survive individually or collectively without rituals because we need to experience beyond the mundane. It is as essential to us as our need for love, shelter and food.Kyle Thompson - Empty Kingdom -

Science reveals that rituals increase confidence and minimise anxiety and they especially help us in times where the outcome is quite significant or things are out of our control. Research shows that meaningful rituals in a relationship help strengthen bonds, improve intimacy, trust, belonging, satisfaction and improve the overall health of a relationship. Romantic rituals enable couples to see the past, present and future of the relationship together and sustain more satisfying connections. Sharing Valentines Day together is important because acknowledging the  significance of your relationship is pivotal to constructing deeper and longer lasting bonds.
Seeing a therapist such as myself, listening to your intuition and discussing with your partner is a great way to invent meaningful romantic rituals. Set aside a time and space for honouring your relationship with your partner and with yourself.

The Hidden History of Valentines Day





Valentines Day originates from a pagan, pre Christian festival called Lupercalia. The Ancient Romans celebrated fertility, sexuality and purification in a three day long spring cleansing ritual that started on the 13th of February every year. To honour the god Lupercus (known as Pan to the Ancient Greeks), men would run naked through the city whipping women’s bare bottoms with goat hide. Women offered up their buttocks willingly, as lashes symbolised fertility, infertility cures and healthy births.


One custom ensured no one spent the festival alone -the singles “lucky dip.” Names were pulled from a jar and coupling commenced for just one night, a week or sometimes these new relationships lasted for years.


As the Church gained power, Pope Gelasius banned Lupercalia Festival in 496 AD. When he couldn’t stamp out the popular celebration two years later, he declared February the 14th to be Valentines Day and changed the lustful theme to saintly love and sacrifice. However the popularity of the “lucky dip” persisted for centuries until the disapproving Church changed it into a saints name guessing game.Happy Lupercalia!

Some scholars argue there is no connection and we’ll never know for sure, but it’s a fun way to expand our awareness  of Valentines day.




There’s a few different accounts of who Saint Valentine really was and we can never know for sure.

Saint Valentine


However the main point is that back then the Church loved matyrs and he was a very popular one. Valentine was a sacrificial matyr with a cult following until the 14th and 15th centuries when Geoffrey Chaucer transformed him into a symbol of romantic love. Chaucer wrote poems of birds mating, lovers pining and the beginning of Spring. His symbols captured the collective imagination so well that they survived through to the Victorian times (see some of the cards I’ve posted below) right through to today.


In the 17th and 18th Centuries “drawing lots” or “Divinatory match making” to choose a valentine was popular. Names were put into a jar on Valentines Eve. It was a good omen for the “lucky dip” couple to eventually marry.


Other customs included women creeping into the churchyard at midnight to discover omens or put hemp seeds under their pillow for dreams of their future husbands.  Young people took to the streets singing in exchange for gifts of money or food and there was sexual license and festive indulgence.

Small businesses started making cards in the 1820’s but it was the cheaper postage that propelled the card giving  custom!  By the 1840’s bigger companies started catering to demand. Hallmark didn’t invent Valentines Day, sending cards was already a symbolic way to express emotions when courtship followed such strict social formalities. Cards were sent to friends, family and even anonymous teasing cards sent to wrongdoers!
Try celebrating Valentines Day in the spirit of the 1700’s when hand written Valentine notes on plain paper were popular! It’s quite intimate and sensual following the hand writing of your lover in our digital age.

Recommendations for Valentines Day
Choose love rather than stagnating in a shutdown and retreat pattern. Come and see a therapist like me  to learn a new pattern where you embrace and open to life when experiencing emotional pain.

Rather than opt out,  celebrate the love of friends, family and yourself!  At school we used to send Valentines Cards to our friends signed, “Your Secret Admirer” and as the vintage card on the left shows, sending Valentines to friends used to be very common.
Research shows Valentines can be an instigator for break ups when a relationship is already on the rocks but stable relationships can survive intact. Discuss your expectations with your lover before the holiday to avoid disappointments.

Use this Valentines Day (or Lupercalia Day!) to inspire you to bring more regular romantic rituals into your life. Perhaps once a month or every two weeks you could have a special Lupercalia Day of your own.

Try creating your own romantic rituals like in Europe where couples write their names on a padlock and lock it onto a bridge. Couples throw the key into the river as a symbol of their love.

For singles; hang out with your single friends and relish your independence. Write down three traits you’d like in a future partner and put it under your pillow on Valentines Eve! Write a list of five of your favourite things about being single and don’t forget there are many people in relationships who are very unhappy and envious of you. What is it you love about yourself and your friends? Celebrating love can be as simple as practicing  gratitude.  Celebrate the potential of your positive future. Try the singles “lucky dip” of Rome BC!  Centuries of culture believed mid February to be a fortuitous time for humans and animals alike to choose a mate!


Above all, view Valentines as a celebration of love not a responsibility!


Catherine O Dowd
Sex Therapist —Relationship Counsellor — Expressive Arts Psychotherapist
Get in touch here to book a session with me today!

This article first appeared as the feature article in CIAO’s Romance issue. You can click on the cover above or here to read it.

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