Valentine’s Day gets a lot of hate.
We call it fake, tacky, manufactured, made up. We say it feels arbitrary to expect romance on one day and that that expectation causes unnecessary pressure and stress—that relationships shouldn’t need such a day to express their love. We say that Valentine’s Day can lead to selfishness and disappointment.
And though the negative effects we see are clearly there, I think we’re misplacing blame.
After all, it’s not just Valentine’s Day. All holidays are commercialized. Companies are going to market based off of what sells and at holidays, holidays sell. That’s not the holiday’s fault and we can celebrate it how we want regardless of what the mall does. And yes, Valentine’s Day is, in a sense, a made up holiday—but again, so is every holiday. Every holiday is a man made celebration to commemorate something with a variety of influences and roots. Even the most solemn religious holidays often fall on inaccurate dates, borrow traditions from completely different religions, and make up traditions that weren’t ever there in the first place. Regardless, they arise out of a shared value and/or a shared event. It is our choice to decide if that shared value or event is worth celebrating.
And of course, we believe that love ought to have some spontaneity, and it should, so we say that Valentine’s Day impedes or detracts from that spontaneity. But the truth is, if we want everything about love to be absolutely spontaneous then we should get rid of birthdays and anniversaries too—and even wedding ceremonies! We might as well get rid of any type of planned occasion, date, memorial, or reminder, as all these things are contrary to spontaneity and come with expectations. The truth is, as there is value to the spontaneous, there is also value to the planned and the anticipated and the memorialized.
And it is true that self-centeredness can feed off of an occasion where gifts start to be expected. People can become greedy, selfish- people can miss the point of a holiday. They can make it about themselves. But this isn’t because of the gifts. Holidays, even without gifts, have expectations that can be disappointed. Holidays like Thanksgiving that are supposed to be so detached from the self can easily be turned into the self by focusing on one’s personal expectations of how the holiday will make them feel. The problem is not with gifts. It’s not with holidays. The problem with Valentine’s Day is not Valentine’s Day.
The problem with Valentine’s Day is the sad reality that humanity, when presented with goods and gifts and celebrations, can exploit them. It’s the sad reality that whenever any good or gift becomes expected, we can dwell on that expectation and we can fixate on it and miss the point of the whole thing. It’s the sad reality that we can become spoiled brats. It’s the sad reality that we have a tendency to prefer receiving to giving and to become self-absorbed.
But that’s not all there is to us. Though holidays can bring out the worst in us, if they revolve around something good they can also bring out the best in us. And we know this. It’s why we keep holidays alive even amidst our many complaints about them. Holidays matter. A holiday is a celebration of the holy. And when we celebrate the holy, our spirits are lifted and inspired and nourished. It is why every culture known to man has celebrated them. Holidays transcend the every day (the simplest holiday being the weekend, something I’m sure none of us would like to abolish). And though we can always celebrate with better, richer, more meaningful traditions, and resist greed and self-centeredness, there is no need to boycott the holiday because some people corrupt it. There is no need to boycott Valentine’s Day. If we have a problem with the corruption, then we can resist and fight it with our purer celebrations.
But there is one complaint about Valentine’s Day that remains to be answered. This is the more difficult one—not that Valentine’s Day could potentially bring out the worst in us, but that it could bring out the saddest. It is the fact that while many couples will share candlelit dinners and ice skating adventures and roses and kisses and joy, many people will be lonely. Many people will feel forgotten, unappreciated. Many people will have a terrible day simply because it is Valentine’s Day. So why have such a day? Why make a day that makes so many people feel terrible? Why make a day that points out what so many people may want but don’t have, usually by no fault of their own? Why make a day that reminds the widow, the divorcee, the cheated-on, the broken-up-with of that which they are trying to live despite? How in the world can that be worth it? Why can’t the lovers live in their own little world without Valentine’s Day casting its shadow over everyone else?
And I understand. I have certainly felt that loneliness before. Most of us have felt it to some degree and so we may feel the need to boycott Valentine’s Day in support of the lonely.
And there is heroism in this. But I don’t think it is really the best way. Because just as Valentine’s Day is not the root of the corruption associated with it, it is also not the root of the loneliness.
The sad reality is that there will always be loneliness. And the sad reality is that every single holiday will emphasize that loneliness for somebody. Every holiday, birthday, anniversary involves some level of love and togetherness and so every single one will come with sadness for many- sadness for what is not, or what once was, or what will never be. And that’s unfair. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have holidays. The lovers can’t and shouldn’t live in their own little world because we don’t actually want a world where the happy separate from the sad. We don’t want a world where people have to hide their joy. The answer to the loneliness of many is not to deemphasize the togetherness of some.
The answer to the loneliness of many is to spread that togetherness. The answer is to find the places love and joy are needed and bring it there as best we can. It is to seek out the lonely and bring them comfort. We don’t need to boycott Valentine’s Day because in some places it has been corrupted. We don’t need to boycott Valentine’s Day because it makes some people sad. We can do better than that. By resisting the corruption and by proactively spreading our joy and cheer we can redeem it.