Valentine’s Day: Myth and Reality

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us.  Many readers may recall a time when its main purpose was for love-struck teenagers to communicate, anonymously or otherwise, with the objects of their desire. Now, it is big business. It is hardly possible to enter a pub or restaurant without being exhorted to publicly display fidelity and love over extravagant drinks and luxury menus.

Paradoxically, during the decades in which this shift has taken place, personal relationships have become much less durable, much more temporary. Forty years ago, for example, each year there were eight times as many marriages as divorces and now there are less than twice as many. According to the Office for National Statistics, 42 per cent of all marriages end in divorce. The average period a cohabiting couple live together is less than four years.

Valentine’s Day is by no means the only ceremonial day whose significance has increased enormously. Mother’s Day, for example, appears to be a pure commercial invention, with no prior cultural roots, yet is now observed devotedly by millions. Celebrations of Hogmanay have been an integral part of Scottish culture for many generations. The English equivalent, New Year’s Eve, tended to be a much more restrained event. Now, it almost rivals Christmas Day itself. The American concept of Halloween was always present in a very limited way in British culture, but was overshadowed completely by our home grown ceremony of Bonfire Night. In the past decade, it has become of at least equal importance.

Economics is not really much use in trying to understand this phenomenon. One of the key assumptions of mainstream economic theory is that people’s tastes are stable. This postulate makes the maths of economics, impenetrable though it may seem to outsiders, much more tractable. Yet these various occasions of celebration show a very marked shift in preferences over time.

Anthropology offers more insight into these cultural events. The concept of conspicuous consumption has been around for a long time, even prior to Thorsten Veblen’s classic account of it written over a century ago. But the distinctive feature here is that the individual acts of consumption are performed simultaneously with millions of others.

A great deal has been written over the past decade or so about the loss of a common British identity, of a weakening of the cultural bonds of the country. This is about far more than the massive wave of immigration which New Labour cynically encouraged. A generation ago, it would have been inconceivable for Scotland to want to secede. Society in general has become much more fragmented. Yet it seems that people yearn for a common identity. The celebration, at the same time both individual and collective, of what have become these special Days is one way of expressing this.

The next marketing opportunity might be to try and import Thanksgiving, though my personal preference would be the Viking ceremony of Up Helly Aa, performed in Shetland in late January. There is a massive demand for these shared events.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Wednesday 5th February 2013

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