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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Fighting with Pinpricks: Love in the time of recession

Published: February 15, 2008
Section: Opinions

Yesterday, we celebrated St. Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is a social climber of a holiday, a plucky little survivor with uncanny shape shifting abilities. What began as Lupercalia—the Roman fertility festival where priests would sacrifice two goats and a dog and spread their blood in the streets—evolved during the Christian period into the feast day for two of the seven saints named Valentine. The connection between Valentine’s Day and romantic love was secured when Chaucer wrote these unforgettable lines in 1382, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

But Valentine’s Day was not done changing. What, after all, would Valentine’s Day be without valentines? The oldest surviving valentine was sent from Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was serving time in the Tower of London following his defeat at the Battle of Agincourt. Remarkably, the best was yet to come for our heroic holiday.

Since the 1840s, the Love-Industrial Complex—a not so shadowy cabal of card manufacturers, florists, and dimly lit French and Italian restaurants—has greatly expanded the size and scope of Valentine’s Day and used the holiday to make enormous profits. The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that this year Americans have spend $122.98 a piece buying ridiculously cheesy cards, outrageously priced bouquets, and enough chalky candy conversation hearts to stretch from Rome to Phoenix and back again 20 times over. Love between humans isn’t the only thing we celebrate on Valentine’s Day; on the contrary, the NRF estimates that this year people spent $367 million on Valentine’s Day gifts for their pets.

Despite this storied history and contemporary acclaim all is not well for Valentine’s Day. Consumers spend about $20 more on Valentine’s Day in 2007 than they did in 2006, but this year they will spend only about $4 more. In short, the value of love in this country can scarcely keep up with inflation. More troublingly, while 62.8% of our countrymen and women bought greeting cards last year, only 56.8% decided to this year, but perhaps worst of all, the crown jewels of the Love-Industrial Complex—jewelry sales—are down as well.

I’d like to think that these numbers indicate the beginning of popular resistance to the Love-Industrial Complex’s insidious notion that complex human emotions are best expressed by the frequent purchase and exchange of manufactured goods. Unfortunately, in this case, the recession’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of the consumer. With prices rising and economists divided not over whether the economy is healthy or not but over whether or not the recession has already begun, it’s a wise move to spend less, particularly on something as inane and pointless as Valentine’s Day.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing worthwhile about Valentine’s Day. It is, after all, the anniversary of one of this country’s most gory and celebrated mob massacres. Nevertheless, I do hope that when this recession is over we do not return to our old patterns of ever increasing Valentine’s Day spending which feeds the coffer of the Love-Industrial Complex and instead leave Valentine’s day to the Middle English poets and Ancient dog-murdering priests with whom it rightly belongs.