Every year on Valentine’s Day there are many people who complain about the holiday. There are different reasons for it, but perhaps the most common is that it is simply a “Hallmark holiday”, a way for card and candy manufacturers, not to mention jewelers and others, to make more money off of a public that is willing to be shamed into buying presents to prove that they love someone. And living in a capitalist country like America that idea does seem to be borne out. Walk into any grocery or drug store around Valentine’s Day and you will see aisles of candy and cards waiting to be snapped up and given to a loved one who didn’t necessarily want or need such gifts. It is our American way to turn any celebration into a way to increase the bottom line for corporations by pushing people to consume more.
Presidents’ Day, which is next week, comes to mind. Clearly the Father of our Country would jump for joy to know that mattresses will be 50% off in his honor. The Great Emancipator would likely be equally happy to know that clothing items made by slave labor in foreign countries will be bought in his honor. The same thing happens on Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and other lesser holidays—“big sales” to celebrate the holidays. Everyone knows that one should buy new sheets and pillowcases every Memorial Day to honor the sacrifices made by soldiers who risk their lives for the ability of Americans to spend freely. Other holidays have particular products that are geared toward the holiday. Beer manufacturers and taverns love St. Patrick’s Day. Turkey and pumpkin farmers honor Thanksgiving. Party favor companies celebrate New Year’s Day. And, besides Valentine’s Day, the candy makers look forward to Halloween and Easter every year. Blessed are the candy makers, for they understand how to make money off of suckers. Of course, besides all of these, there is also the disgusting consumer free-for-all that Christmas has become.
Of course, none of these holidays were started for commercial purposes. They had more noble origins that have been lost to the population by merchandisers wanting to take advantage of people for a fast buck. According to History.com Valentine’s Day was originally a day to honor Saint Valentine (although no one is sure which of the three Saint Valentines it was intended to honor). It was placed in the middle of February as a way for the Catholic Church to co-opt yet another Pagan holiday, Lupercalia. However, the association of the holiday with romantic love was not created by Hallmark. It goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. In fact, the first Valentine was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. So the holiday was not a creation of the greeting card industry. It has simply been taken advantage of by them because they saw the potential of making money from lovers who weren’t sure how to express their love and found it easier to let others speak for them.
But none of this means that we have to let consumerism determine how we celebrate these holidays, if we choose to celebrate them at all. Many people celebrate Thanksgiving by donating time to homeless shelters. For many Christians Christmas and Easter are sacred holidays that are more about prayer than about gift-giving. There are countless people who go to cemeteries and plant flags or drop off flowers on Memorial Day. In Madison Veterans for Peace honors Memorial Day with a display for all the soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. For a lot of people all of these holidays are meaningless if they are not about family. Any holiday—any day, in fact—can be made into whatever celebration a person wants to make it. Making a holiday meaningful in a personal way is a great way to celebrate the day.
For me Valentine’s Day is a reminder to stop and think about love in my life. I am fortunate enough to have romantic love with a life partner of more than twenty years, and we usually reserve the day to be together as it is so easy not to do that in the fast-paced world in which we live. We may go out for dinner or something, but it is not about gifts or cards. It is about spending quality time together, acknowledging our love and recommitting to it. Our anniversary does the same for us.
But there is nothing saying that the day has to be about romantic love. Love comes in many forms and all of them can be celebrated, on Valentine’s Day, other holidays, or any day or days we choose to do so. There is the love of family, of friends, co-workers, associates, community members, and the greater love and empathy for the world that causes us to dedicate ourselves to volunteerism, politics, and other causes greater than ourselves. If you don’t have romantic love in your life at the moment there is no reason other love cannot be celebrated. I talked to a woman at a gas station today who told me that because it was Valentine’s Day she called her sister who has been in bad spirits just to let her sister know that she loved and cared for her. To me, that was a beautiful act of honoring this day of love, as well as her sister and the gift of life itself.
Happy Valentine’s Day. May it be filled with all kinds of love.