Feb 14: It’s Ester Howland’s Day

Posted on February 15, 2017


Yesterday, February 14, should not have been in celebration of St Valentine. And not only because such a person probably did not exist. Nor should it be a celebration of monogamous, romantic love, let alone a minor feast day in the Christian calendar.

Instead, it should be a day to celebrate entrepreneurs and retailers, especially chocolatiers, florists and others involved in the personal gifts business. And the individual to whom homage should be paid is Ester Howland, the 19th Century American artist, printer and cunning marketeer.

It was in 1850 that Ester, from Worcester in the state of Masschesetts, first hit on the idea of printing romantic cards in celebration of what was by then regarded as a day for romantically inclined gentlemen of standing to declare — usually anonymously — their love for the female they desired. Since the 17th Century this was done via bouquets of flowers or elaborate, lace decorated and often poetic professions of undying devotion.

Howland’s cards, attractive and inexpensive, rapidly became a major industry and the florists, chocolatiers, candy makers and others quickly followed on to create what, in the United States alone, is estimated to result in an annual $20billion in retail turnover. In Japan, the day has developed into a double retail bonanza.

On February 14 Japanese women provide gifts of chocolates to the men in their lives. All the men. Because there are two forms of gift, Gini-choco and Honmei-choco.
The Gini version are given as an obligation to bosses, workmates and other associates. Honmei chocolates, however, carry the romantic connotation and go to husbands, lovers and those men who might be interested in entering these categories.

In a cunning turn of the commercial screw, all of the men in Japan who receive Gini and Honmei have to reciprocate with suitable gifts for the women in their lives on “White Day”, March 14. All still done vaguely in the name of Valentine, an apparently mythical saint conjured up by Pope Galasius I some 1 700 years ago in an attempt to stop an ancient festival of love, lust and lechery much beloved of pagan Romans.

In then newly Christianised Rome, the imminent dawning of Spring, and the fertility it symbolised, was celebrated in mid February. It was then that eligible — and clearly available — young men would run near naked through the streets of the city apparently allowing themselves to be caught by anyone who fancied them.

This was all in celebration of Luperus, a borrowed deity from Greece, where Lupercus was known as Pan, an impish, pipe-playing man-goat with a voracious sexual appetite. This was debauchery and anathema to the new church, but it was an established and obviously popular celebration. It would be unpopular and difficult to ban, so why not make the celebration one that honoured the church and love within, or with the aim of, monogamous, heterosexual marriage? St Valentine provided the answer.

And so, across the centuries, a mythical party pooper of note came to be celebrated, very much within the parameters laid down by the church in Rome. But, in 1969, having scanned through Vatican history, church authorities decided there was insufficient evidence that Valentine had ever existed. The saint was duly deregistered.

Not that this ecclesiatical act has stopped reverence being accorded to the claimed remains of a St Valentine interred in a church in Ireland. And it certainly never put paid to the international festival of commerce triggered by Ester Howland.

Anyway, it is probably best that the name remains. After all, Valentine’s Day has a rather better ring to it than Ester Howland Day.  But, perhaps next year it could be called Ester Valentine Day.

Posted in: Commentary