In Indonesia, Valentine’s Day has been somewhat of a ‘taboo’ celebration. As someone raised in a Muslim family, I was never prohibited from celebrating Valentine’s Day, but it was something that was frowned upon by my parents, or those more religious than myself — many of us were told that the origin of this observation was from a different religion, and so we did not participate in its celebration.
There is truth to this of course: Valentine’s Day commemorates the religious sacrifice of Saint Valentine, a Christian martyr in the 3rd Century. Different accounts of this elusive character exist, but either way, the saint was executed by a Roman Emperor hoping to cleanse the empire of Christianity. Saint Valentine(s) refused to renounce the faith, giving shelter to other Christians under prosecution.
Ironically, today’s Valentine’s Day strays far from its Christian origins. But how did this ‘holiday’, intended to remember the religious sacrifice of martyrs, turn into the spectacle of love as it is seen today?
Numerous accounts could be credited to the turning tide of Valentine’s Day. Early history notes the poem called “Parliament of Fowls” by the 14th Century English Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer described a group of birds gathering at the beginning of spring— on “seynt valentynes day”—to choose their mates for the year. The poet draws on the season when birds are commonly known to mate.
By the 18th century it was common practice in Europe and the United States to exchange cards filled with romantic love notes on 14 February, rapidly developing into a popular commercial event with cards, confectionaries, flowers, jewellery being marketed as signs of love. The 19th Century saw a rapid development of the day, with Esther Howard (Mother of Valentine) creating bespoke cards, Cadbury’s introducing heart-shaped chocolate boxes. The 19th Century saw Hallmark Cards being developed and DeBeers’ iconic campaign connecting jewellery — and the rest is history, a snowballing of Valentine’s Day virtues!
So, today’s Valentine’s Day is quite a far-cry from its original Christian beginnings, and that’s across the world. And whilst it has become commercial, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
With the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day, it has become accessible to all backgrounds. Everyone can join in, in different ways, celebrated by restaurants, chocolate and confectionery brands, hotels, bookshops with their special Valentine gift cards.
In a country where traditional values are still upheld and public displays of affection – even modest means – can be frowned upon, the ‘holiday’ presents an opportunity to be more open about love. In Indonesian culture, we tend to have a more subtle way of expressing our feelings, especially romantic ones. Familial love is often the pillar of Indonesian values, and in fact Valentine’s Day has been a day where a platonic love is celebrated.
I have commonly heard stories of friends whose parents celebrate the day by buying gifts, sweets and cards for their children. And of course vice versa, as they themselves became adults and want to show their own appreciation for their parents.
Despite being a western observation with Christian origins, for Indonesia, Valentine’s Day is a ‘democratisation’ of affection, a medium in which it becomes safer and more open to present, publicly, one’s love and care for another. Whether that is one’s spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, crush, family, friends or maybe even community. So, even having been raised not to celebrate the day, I see now that Valentine’s Day is more universal than I once perceived it, encompassing every type of relationship there is. And I hope that more in this country can embrace this new, open-minded philosophy of the day going forward.
So, whether you’re buying flowers for your Mum, writing a card for a friend, or taking out that special someone for a candlelit dinner, we wish you a very Happy Valentine’s Day!