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Why we give gifts on Valentine’s Day

A look at the timeline of the corporate holiday and its gift-giving traditions
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Valentine’s Day has become heavily commercialized. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY
Valentine’s Day has become heavily commercialized. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY

Love is in the air; can’t you smell it? If you can’t smell it, then you can certainly see it in every store window you pass. As you see hearts all around reminding people to celebrate love this February 14, you may wonder: how did this tradition of gift-giving come to be? And why is the pressure to purchase tokens of appreciation on Valentine’s Day so immense?

How Valentine’s Day came to be 

Valentine’s Day can be considered the successor to Lupercalia, an Ancient Roman feast that dates all the way back to 300 BCE. Every year, between February 13 and 15, Romans would celebrate the arrival of spring, and engage in a variety of traditions for Lupercalia. One such tradition, meant to increase women’s fertility, involved being whipped by the skin of a sacrificed dog or goat. Another was more similar to blind dating, in which men and women would be randomly matched when their names would be drawn in a lottery. While whipping women with dog skin to improve their fertility probably isn’t a tradition anymore, the tradition of gifting chocolates, cards, and flowers is one that’s more common to modern-day Valentine’s Day. How did it become the Valentine’s Day staple it is today?

The act of giving flowers on Valentine’s Day may date back many centuries, depending on what source you believe, and roses — the favorite flower of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love — were the flower of choice. The rose was bold and stood for strong feelings, so lovers would use them to show their boundless love for one another. 

On Valentine’s Day in 1415, Charles, the Duke of Orleans, wrote his wife a poem while imprisoned in the Tower of London, which may have started the tradition of giving cards. By the sixteenth century, the exchanging of cards became so common that even religious leaders preached against them. However, they have now become a popular way to express love on Valentine’s Day. 

And would Valentine’s Day really be complete without a heart-shaped box of chocolates? Spanish explorers brought chocolate back to Europe from North America in the seventeenth century, and it soon became Europe’s candy of choice on this holiday. 

True Blue valentines 

In 2017, a survey of over 1,000 Canadians conducted by Ebates — a money saving website — found that 68 per cent of Canadians seem to think that Valentine’s Day is more than just a ‘silly holiday,’ as they shell out an average of $58 on presents for their loved ones. In 2021, Americans spent 21.8 billion USD on Valentine’s Day — lower than the amount they spent in 2020, but still significant.

Another study conducted by Picodi.com had analysts calculating how much money people need to spend on a date in various cities around the world. In Toronto, dinner for two paired with wine and the cinema costs about $161.

With Valentine’s Day becoming increasingly commercialized, you may wonder: isn’t this just part of some bigger capitalist agenda that people are buying into? The Varsity spoke with lovers at U of T to understand their thoughts on the tradition of gift-giving this Valentine’s Day. 

Nicholas Evans is a third-year student majoring in physics and astrophysics. When asked how he would be celebrating this Valentine’s Day, he said that he would be getting his girlfriend Nikitha Devanaboyina, another U of T student, a small personal gift along with chocolates and flowers. 

I plan on giving these gifts because I enjoy giving gifts no matter the time of year, but I find Valentine’s Day to be an excuse to go further than some small random gift I might see in a store,” wrote Evans in an email to The Varsity

Obviously you don’t need to buy someone a gift to show them you care but I feel like getting something meaningful, big or small, can express your love towards them,” wrote Devanaboyina. 

Gifts aren’t just for lovers, as roommates and third-year students Alexandra Schneider and Ashafina Ashafara have proven. They plan to express their appreciation and gratitude for one another by gifting each other small presents such as chocolates and flowers. 

Schneider explained that, although she understands that Valentine’s Day is ultimately the result of capitalism, she still likes to get small gifts for her loved ones. “Despite my belief that it is just another capitalized holiday, I do believe it’s an opportunity to remind those around you that you love and appreciate them,” wrote Schneider in an email to The Varsity

“I don’t really let the exploitation of capitalism shape my actions and how I show my gratitude to others– and while I realise I am very embedded in this system, to constantly view myself as a product of capitalism is exhausting and dehumanising. Sometimes, gift giving really is as simple as it sounds– a token of appreciation for someone who you care about,” wrote Ashafara.