How did red roses and chocolates and teddy bears and diamonds come to define love? That's what we will discuss today in this episode of "Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol" with Rakesh Sharma.
Rakesh Sharma | Harish Puppala
Moneycontrol Contributor"Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs;
Being purg'd, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vex'd, a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears;
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet."
- Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene I.
It was Valentine’s Day and weekend this past week. Restaurants were overbooked; milk chocolate trays oversold. Teddy bear sales spiked; and in the days after, their abandonment rates have, too. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, said Shakespeare. Love, he said, was no Time’s fool, and that it persevered and persisted through the ravages of time until death. But we have known love to recede with an alteration of a carat to the left of the X-axis and the appearance of one wrinkle too many in the T-zone.
The Bard of Avon might have thought love was a smoke made of sighs, but it appears modern loving is made of something less expressive and something more expensive. How did red roses and chocolates and teddy bears and diamonds come to define love? Bro, what’s love gotta do with it? That’s what we discuss today on Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol with me Rakesh Sharma.
But first, a Valentine's Day flashback: Lose your head, become immoral
Valentine’s Day is a day for celebrating love. Well, that’s the maudlin marketing spiel anyway. It is what we are sold by marketing mavens around the world. The truth is, despite what innumerable sitcoms and TV specials push as a day for spending with that special someone (or more than one, as the case may be), besides also spending on that someone, Valentine’s Day has a terrifying backstory. Like all worthwhile medieval stories, this one contains some brutal torture, and a beheading.
There, I have your interest now.
So let’s get right into it, you mawkish consumers of crass capitalism and Hallmark holidays. The grim tale behind the day of love.
The origins of Valentine’s Day go back many centuries to ancient Rome. Well, yes, I agree, what European festival doesn’t? (Maybe when we have a Brexit Day in the future?)
Pagans had more fun
Anyway, back to Rome. There is more than one legend around Valentine’s Day, and the Catholic church recognizes three different Saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were killed.
But first, the pagan legends behind this special day. If ever any peoples overdid anything, it was the Romans. Caligula, anyone? (Watch the film – it’s… something.)
Sample this. Legend has it, from February 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. It was an ancient, perhaps even Pre-Roman pagan festival where the men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. Yep, whipped. Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado, told NPR that the Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked.” Lenski added that young women would actually lineup for the men to hit them. They believed this would make them fertile. Holy kink, Batman!
This merry festival also included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be joined for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right. Swipin’ right, Roman style. Some claim the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Dan Brown fans will be aware what this appropriation stuff is all about. Lenski remarked to NPR, “It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn't stop it from being a day of fertility and love.”
The many myths of Valentine’s Day
And now we come to the beheading story. The Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II, whose reign started in September of 268 and ended in January 270, executed two men, both named Valentine, on February 14. Well, not at the same time; he was not that much of a monster.
Claudius II was involved in many wars and wasn’t exactly an emperor to be messed with. He decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families. He outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When the priest’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Off with his head! And hence, the decapitation and the consequent head-losing and yada yada yada. Thanks to the marital angle of his story, Valentine became the patron saint of love, young people, and marriages. (And also of plague, epilepsy, and beekeepers, but that’s a story for another time. There are so many things and only so many saints. It’s a grim economy in the pantheon of saints, and you just have to take on the extra job). After the beheading, Valentine’s remains, er, remained in the Catacombs of San Valentino for a while before moving to Santa Maria in Cosmedin (or the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni, depending on the myth you choose to believe). There, the remains were visited by pilgrims for many years. They probably would have remained venerated, but somewhat anonymous relics for the patron saint of beekeepers and people suffering from the plague had it not been for one Geoffrey Chaucer. That’s a rude poet from the Middle Ages who wrote far too many fart jokes (and we love him for it). But we’ll get to the Chaucer angle in a minute.
Another vaguely similar myth is also mixed up with the roots of Valentine’s Day. St Valentine of Terni, a town in central Italy is said to have been killed by royal decree in the year 269 (or thereabouts) on February 14. According to legend, the Roman physician and priest Valentinus was beaten, stoned, and beheaded for the crimes of marrying Christian couples, and possibly attempting to convert Emperor Claudius II to Christianity. February 14 was made a feast day in his honor by Pope Gelasius I in the year 496. There is some disagreement among historians (shocking!) whether the holiday was meant to replace the pagan fertility festival Lupercalia or to honor Valentine. Yet other stories suggest Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured.
In any case, as time went on, as it usually does, more romantic connotations came to be associated with the saint. One legend has Valentine befriending (or falling in love with) the blind daughter of a judge (or jailer). He wrote her secret letters signed "from your Valentine" and then restored her sight from beyond the grave. After which, she went on to have a good time at that year’s Lupercalia. (Alright, I made up that last bit. By this time, Lupercalia was outlawed as it was deemed “un-Christian.” By the same Pope Gelasius. Fun guy. (As these Popes tend to usually be. Try Pope John XII. Real peach that one.)
Courting eventually became a part of European culture down the middle ages. Not surprising then that February came in rather handy for young people feeling mushy. The first written connection between love and Valentine’s Day appears in Chaucer’s poem, Parlement of Foules, written in in the late 14th century. Some claim he simply invented the correlation and chalked it up to poetic license, though it’s entirely possible he was drawing from older courtly traditions. The Folklore Society notes that Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned Valentine's Day and describes February as the time "when every fowl cometh there to chose his mate." Geoff was the Middle Ages frat bro, you just know it. So, we see that by the time of MC Geoffy C, who died in the year 1400, mid-February already had some association with Valentine’s Day. One History TV recounting noted that “The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.”
Now, here’s where things get a bit muddled, and a bit funny. There are eleven Valentines commemorated by the Catholic Church. There were at least two other Saints named Valentine who lived around the time of the Terni Valentine. Because his origins are so obscure, he was actually removed from the General Roman Calendar by the Roman Catholic Church in 1969 (even though he is still technically considered a saint).
If the origin of love is a fount with no known coordinates, the origin of the day of love is just as mysterious.
A Hallmark holiday
Closer to modern times, Americans likely began exchanging handmade valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.” And in in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City (the largest city in Missouri; the Kansas City in Kansas is a whole other city. I know. Confusing) began mass producing valentines. February has not been the same ever since. February is also Black History Month, but ask how many people know that.
These days, according to the Greeting Card Association (a fully real association in the UK), an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, only behind Christmas. Women purchase approximately 85% of all valentines.
According to market research firm IBIS World, Valentine's Day sales in the US reached $17.6 billion in 2010. It was closer to 20 billion USD last year, according to CNBC. That number could touch 30 billion this year, according to some other estimates. In India, Valentine’s Day is still quite a novelty of course. But that has not stopped certain elements of our great Bharatvarsha from making it seem like the return of Lord Macaulay. In many conservative societies, Valentine’s Day is viewed as an alien corruption of youth. More on that later in the podcast.
But first, the accouterments of love – and how the hell did that happen.
In the name of love
Robert Burns, the National Poet of Scotland and the man celebrated on Burns Night where the main attraction is haggis (which is animal innards), was less macabre when it came to describing his love. “O my Luve's like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June,” he said. That red, red rose that is love also means red, red hot business. After all, if you have convinced the world that a set number of a certain colour of a specific flower is the definition of love, you have also succeeded in ensuring that the market for said flower is thriving.
The polar vortex has gripped North America in its cold cold clutches, but legions of young men and women clutched instead a bunch of dozen red roses so in their hands, sold to them at a premium, because well, Valentine’s Day. In the middle of winter. Where do these roses come from? Not from any greenhouse in the middle of America, that is certain. Several Central and South American countries grow red roses to send across to the US, so much so that according to one estimate, Americans spent nearly 2 billion dollars on flowers on Valentine’s Day in 2016. Economist Alex Tabarrok calls the red rose a “truly global product.”
The idea of the red rose as the symbol of love is again a vestige of Greek and Roman iconography. From symbolizing Aphrodite to Venus (the goddess of love) to the virtue of Mother Mary, the red rose has meant business for millennia. From William Shakespeare to Robert Burns to Gertrude Stein – they have all fallen under the spell of the whorls of the red, red rose, ensuring that even in century number twenty one after the passing of that very Mother Mary’s son, the red rose remains a billion dollar commodity.
“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
- Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts
Chocolates shouldn’t come as a surprise choice as a Valentine’s Day favourite. Its reputation as an aphrodisiac is storied; its representation as an item of decadence well established. A commercially mass-produced bar of sweetness to become the proxy to establish heartfelt sentiments of love? Well, now that’s a leap. A leap that has centuries of history behind it.
The Aztecs considered chocolate an aphrodisiac. Quick biochemistry lesson now: one of the most useful compounds in chocolate – love compound if you must – is something called phenethylamine (PEA), which can trigger the release of endorphins i.e., happy hormones. Additionally, PEA enables the activity of dopamine, the happiness molecule, which is also involved in the process of sexual arousal. The biochemistry might not have been known to the Aztecs, but the reactions to chocolate certainly were. Montezuma, the famed Aztec emperor, allegedly consumed as many as 50 cups of his preferred “love drug” before he visited his harem of 600 women. As the Smithsonian noted, “It was a highly-prized luxury item among Mayan and Aztec upper class elites, who were known to savor a drink that combined roasted cacao beans with cornmeal, vanilla, honey and chilies. Cacao beans were as valuable a commodity as gold, and were even used to pay taxes levied by Aztec rulers.”
The Spanish conquistadors brought this love drug back with them to Europe, and it was the beginning of a new, beautiful, bounteous relationship. By the early 1600s, chocolate houses were the places to be. One such shop opened on Gracechurch Street in 1657, advertising chocolate as a “West Indian drink which cures and preserves the body of many diseases.” Across the Channel in France, Madame de Sevigne documented heavy chocolate consumption throughout the court at that byword of decadence – Versailles. Louis IV drank it daily; Madame du Barry, apparently, infused chocolate and amber to stimulate her lovers. The Smithsonian magazine said, “When Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI in 1770, she brought her personal chocolate maker to Versailles. The official “Chocolate Maker to the Queen” created such recipes as “chocolate mixed with orchid bulb for strength, chocolate with orange blossom to calm the nerves, or chocolate with sweet almond milk to aid the digestion.””
All of this excessive use of chocolate was still largely in liquid form, and chocolate was still a fairly pricey extravagance. But the coming together of a popular late winter-early spring holiday celebrating love (Valentine’s Day) and the attribution of chocolate as an item inspiring lust was the perfect recipe for the emergence of chocolates as objet du jour in the popular imagination. Sugar was still a pricey commodity in Europe. And the Europeans had yet to figure out a way to eat chocolate in solid form.
It was Victorian England, and while “Victorian” is now a substitute for conservative attitudes, the abiding feeling back then was decadence and a rather adventurous attitude towards sex, even if very strictly private. “Richard Cadbury, whose British family manufactured chocolate, was searching for a way to use the pure cocoa butter that was extracted from the process Cadbury had invented to make a more palatable drinking chocolate. His solution was “eating chocolates,” which he packaged in lovely boxes he designed himself. A marketing genius, Cadbury began putting the Cupids and rosebuds on heart-shaped boxes in 1861: even when the chocolates had been eaten, people could use the beautiful boxes to save such mementos as love letters,” Amy Henderson explains on The Smithsonian.
Over in America, one Milton Hershey, of the eponymous Hershey’s, launched production of tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” so-called because of the smooching noise the chocolate made as it was manufactured. Mass-produced at an affordable cost, the kisses were advertised as “a most nourishing food.”
With Jean Harlow, the screen siren of the 30s, dressed in sequins and feathers, cavorting atop heart-shaped pillows, and seductively nibbling on chocolates (Dinner at Eight), the transformation of chocolate as the ultimate food of decadent love was complete.
If you ever thought why ad-men, those men on Madison, made quite as much money as they did (and in some cases, continue to), look no further than that stone that has become de rigueur for marriage proposals. Diamonds. Are they a girl’s best friend? Well, not until an ad campaign and Marilyn Monroe said so.
Diamonds are not exactly rare, would you believe? And the ‘Forever’ in ‘Diamonds are forever’ was more to hammer home the point that consumers should not resell the stones than it is to attribute eternal love or eternity to diamonds, which in fact can be chipped, shattered, discolored, or incinerated to ash. The ‘Diamond Invention,’ as Edward Jay Epstein called it, was the quintessential Mad Men scam: “the creation of the idea that diamonds are rare and valuable, and are essential signs of esteem.”
Until the late 19th century, diamonds were found in very few places around the world – a few riverbeds in India, some parts of Brazil. Golconda accounted for most of the world’s diamond supply, which was not very much in the first place – a few pounds a year. In 1870, huge diamond mines were discovered near the Orange river in South Africa, and diamonds started being mined in the tons. The market had a diamond surplus. For a substance that does not have much intrinsic value and was expensive only owing to its perceived scarcity, this was a deathblow. The Atlantic said, “The British businessmen operating the South African mines recognized that only by maintaining the fiction that diamonds were scarce and inherently valuable could they protect their investments and buoy diamond prices. They did so by launching a South Africa–based cartel, De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. (now De Beers), in 1888, and meticulously extending the company's control over all facets of the diamond trade in the ensuing decades.”
Harry Oppenheimer, the son of the founder of De Beers, met with a New York-based ad agency called NW Ayer. The folks at Ayer then proceeded to pull out some magical thinking – tell young men that diamonds, and only diamonds, were synonymous with romance and the size of the stone bought was proportional to the man’s love and professional and personal success; to tell young women that courtship must involve a diamond, and their own worth could be measured by the size of the diamond they were being pursued with.
Enter movie stars and Hollywood profiles in the exercise. “I’ll have what she is having,” became the mantra for the middle class wage earner when she saw that Hollywood royalty it; for the man, it became a matter of ego. And thus was born the myth of the diamond.
Try selling a diamond, and you know just how much of a con you have bought into.
An idea is the most powerful thing in the world. What De Beers sold us (and continues to sell us) was a powerful marketing spiel. The price of diamonds has not seen a huge dip ever – even through the troughs of the Great Depression. Even famously stoic societies were swayed. As Epstein wrote, “In 1967, when the campaign began, less than 5 percent of betrothed Japanese women had a diamond engagement ring. By 1981, that figure had risen to 60 percent, and Japan had become the second-largest market, after the United States, for diamond engagement rings. De Beers conjured up "a billion-dollar-a-year diamond market in Japan, where matrimonial custom had survived feudal revolutions, world wars, industrialization, and even the American occupation.”
A 2014 report by Bain indicated that the biggest market for diamonds in this decade will be China and India, partly due to the rise in the trend of the diamond ring for engagement proposals.
Tl;dr: We’ve been had.
To dismiss Valentine’s Day as a Hallmark holiday is easy. Often, it is also a rather elitist stand to take. As writer Reema Moudgil noted, “The one good thing Valentine’s Day has achieved in India however is to give the repressed young in small towns a reason to celebrate each other with visible signs of affection, the few instances when their faces have been blackened by the moral police notwithstanding. Any occasion that gives the young a chance to express love in a country where an acceptable form of communication between the sexes is eve teasing and even rape (the national capital setting new standards in the above), should be celebrated regardless of its commercial intentions.”
Even this year, we saw skirmishes in Hyderabad by the Bajrang Dal. We’ve seen the Pink Chaddi campaign in the past. We know of several instances of young Indians having been beaten up by thugs who claim Valentine’s Day is not part of Indian culture. To them, one can’t but pose the obvious question. What is Indian culture?
This past Valentine’s Day was also the first since Section 377 of the IPC was read down by the Supreme Court. The opportunity to celebrate our love for someone – whoever that may be – is not often granted in India unless it also came with sanctioned norms requiring parental and societal approval, and a wedding to consecrate it, to legitimize it. In a country that so easily falls into a pattern of hate, isn’t it almost necessary that we protect the sanctity of the one day set aside for love?
Love trumps hate. It’s trite to say it, but it is what it is. And in these difficult times, we would do well to remember it, and live by it.
There are reams of romantic poetry I could end the story with, but it’s Dr Seuss I enlist.
“We are all a little weird, and life’s a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them in mutual weirdness and call it love.”Perfect.