It’s not easy to be a fan of Valentine’s Day anymore.
When I was younger, no one seemed to mind that I took pleasure in the holiday. What’s not to like? Lots of candy and a guarantee that everyone in the class would receive tiny, prepackaged Valentine cards from everybody else.
All through high school and the first half of college, however, I joined a special club of men who loathe the coming of February 14 as one might loathe dental surgery. I would huddle with everyone else, scoffing at the happy couples while secretly wishing to be them. We protected ourselves from loneliness by emitting a field of cynicism around us that was palpable.
We often wore black to commemorate the occasion.
As I grew older and learned more about the ups and downs of the world of dating, my once-burning hatred for Valentine’s Day cooled to a mild distaste. As it turns out, I’ve rarely been single for Valentine’s Day in the last few years. Nevertheless, my artist friends and I have continued to pick apart the mother of all Hallmark holidays, decrying the blatant commercialism and the sugary sweet bubble-gum romance that we find unbearable.
Whatever value of love we might have once associated with Valentine’s Day has gotten lost under the pressure to buy buy buy and give give give and spend until it hurts. Like anything else of value in our culture, American consumerism has laid Valentine’s Day to waste.
This year, however, I find myself attracted again to the pageantry I once knew this holiday to be. Part of it may be that I’m in a relationship with a wonderful woman whom I adore. I can’t deny that I might be singing a different tune if I were single and destined to spend the evening locked away in my dorm room while re-runs of Pop-Up Video shimmered before my eyes.
But it’s not just the lovey-dovey aspect of the day that has changed my attitude. And I certainly was not won over by the barrage of e-cards, jewelry sales, stuffed bunnies, or candy hearts with the words “email me” scribbled across them.
The stuffed bunnies can stuff it. Valentine’s Day is bigger than them.
Valentine’s Day, like all other holidays, presents us with a way of marking time. Holidays are a very human invention, helping us keep track of the movement of life. We construct a calendar year based on our perceptions of how life is constructed. We create rituals to bear witness to the evolution of that life.
Pagans celebrate life and death through the coming and going of the Sun in winter and spring. Hindus hold vigils on the night of Mahashivaratri to honor the powers of creation and destruction in our lives as manifested in the god Shiva. Christians center their celebrations around the life, death, and resurrection or rebirth of Jesus Christ. Christ dies as winter dies and is born again as the spring blooms.
Our secular traditions also bind us in celebration of life and the marking of time as we move through the liturgy of the year. Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest. Halloween is a tribute to the alter ego.
Valentine’s Day, despite its Christian origins, has become a secular holiday. It commemorates one of our most basic and least concrete human principles, love. It’s a day to recognize that love is something magnificent and worth fighting for.
Its patron, Saint Valentine, was a Roman priest who died somewhere in the vicinity of 270 CE, many centuries before the Roman Catholic church instituted a lock-down on clerical genitals. During Valentine’s time, Emperor Claudius II didn’t allow young men to marry because he believed single men would make better soldiers.
Valentine was a romantic and he would have none of that. He helped young couples to marry in secret until he was caught and imprisoned. From there, it’s rumored that he wrote secret letters to his beloved, signing each one “from your Valentine.” Some versions of the story even suggest that Valentine’s beloved was none other than the jailer’s daughter.
In the end, Valentine died trying to help others escape from prison. He died a martyr for love.
That’s the kind of love that Valentine’s Day is supposed to symbolize. Real love. Tough, gut-wrenching, unabated love. Love worth dying for. The stories about the saint may be no more than fanciful mythology, but the power of such stories is not so easily diminished. Love is an incredible force. It turns our lives upside down. It always has.
Even before the legends of Saint Valentine were established, there were rituals at this time of year concerning love. Some were designed to coincide with the mating of the birds, and some were heavily laden with fertility and purification rites, but all aimed at the same concept. We take one day out of our calendar of passing moments and dedicate it to the glory of love.
As we walk through the cycle of a year, we take one day to recognize the power love has in our lives. And in our modern context, we take one day out of our busy lives and remind the people we absently kiss goodnight just how much it means to us that they exist.
I admit that there is an unfair cultural pressure that has become a handmaiden of the season. We feel like we have to buy the perfect thing and create the perfect romantic evening or else we’re bad lovers, bad partners, bad something-or-other. Some folks contend that we should give our little gifts and acknowledge our loved ones all the time.
And I agree that the pressure to act is unwarranted. But to be fair, most of us aren’t good to each other all the time, and not nearly as good as we’d like to think we are. We forget. We get lost in our own stupid shit and we don’t think outside of ourselves. It happens to all of us. Holidays help us to remember that life flows on regardless of deadlines and projects. Valentine’s Day keeps love from getting lost in the mix.
I hope my artist friends and my single friends who read this will forgive me when I say that I enjoy Valentine’s Day. Don’t worry, I’m still as cynical and countercultural as ever. I still hate boy bands, corporate America, and Family Circus.
But I like Valentine’s Day. I like knowing that one day a year, amid all the other things that the world says I’m supposed to do, I am actually allowed to become vulnerable and tell someone how much they mean to me. And maybe in time I’ll learn to love the stuffed bunnies too.