Stating the Obvious About Valentine’s Day

Love Day is coming. Brace yourselves.

I know it, because white tents are springing up in the parking lots of grocery stores. They are filled with red and pink and white things. Stuffed animals, boxes of candy, balloons. Everything is shaped like a heart. Soon, sad men will be clustering around these tents, picking through the junk, looking for the perfect knick knack to express their unique and eternal love for whomever. 

We all know how pathetic this is. We all “know” that Valentine’s Day is a sham – a holiday invented by greeting card companies. That last fact is debatable – we know the holiday has roots in Catholicism, the saints and whatnot, and that the practice of giving valentines as a gesture of love has been going on for quite a while. Greeting card companies are mainly to blame for how we celebrate the holiday today.

For children, Valentine’s Day is fun little diversion. You buy a box of valentines with cartoons on them, whatever cartoon characters represent the current zeitgeist, and you trade them with the kids in your class. If you’re old enough to start having crushes maybe you even give a special one to somebody. In the process you get to eat a lot of pink candy and cut hearts out of construction paper. It’s trivial fun.

If only these existed when I was younger...

If only these existed when I was younger…

But for adults it’s something entirely different, and entirely unpleasant. It’s unpleasant regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman; whether dating, co-habitating, married, or single. The message sent by commercial culture about Valentine’s Day is clear: Love is grand, and if you agree, today is the day to prove it to somebody.

Without context that message doesn’t seem too bad. What deforms it is the feeling of arbitrary obligation. Many of our holidays have lost their original meanings over the years, giving in to the harsh demands of commercialism, but Valentine’s Day seems especially empty. It’s meant to exalt a thing – “love” – that really ought to be expressed uniquely by every person. It’s taking the single most personal emotion we’re capable of as humans, and homogenizing it. Then, it’s attaching material obligations to the whole mess.

As a result, Valentine’s Day is something almost no adult enjoys on its own merits, but feels compelled to go through the motions. Not for the opportunity to make broad romantic gestures, but as a necessary mitigation of the potential fallout of NOT doing anything. And I strongly suspect this has provoked more ire among innocent couples than it has affection. It places a more immediate pressure on men (traditionally), but there’s another, arguably more sinister effect it has on women. It creates a kind of social competition wherein the gestures made by boyfriends and husbands are seen as direct evidence of how much they appreciate their female counterparts. Understand, I don’t mean that as a critique of female sociology but as an admonishment of the way culture has twisted Valentine’s Day into something ugly for both genders.

And this is to say nothing of those “looking for love”. As though the involuntarily single aren’t under enough pressure in daily life – now there’s a special day to emphasize it.

I know this is an excessively cynical outlook on something rather benign, but what can I say? No other holiday, save perhaps Christmas, seems to generate as much negativity as Valentine’s Day. Christmas at least (in my own opinion) balances it out by inspiring generosity, joy, togetherness, and simple pleasures. It earns the stress. The investment/return rate of Valentine’s Day is just all fucked up.

So to all the young couples out there, I have this to offer: If you notice February 14th beginning to loom large, and your reaction is less “tickled anticipation” and more “oh shit”, I implore you to have the conversation with your significant other. “Does Valentine’s Day really mean something to you?” You just may be liberated by the outcome. I take this feeling of liberation for granted, as Becky and I have never celebrated a single Valentine’s Day, but it can be yours as well. You can create your own traditions. And then you can pen a smug condemnation of the holiday yourself.

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