Leave Cupid Alone, You Snobs
I'm not a brainwashed moron for sincerely loving Valentine's Day.
I'm almost afraid to say it: I have plans for Valentine's Day.
And I don't mean ironic, anti-Valentine's Day plans that attempt to reclaim the holiday for feminism, for singletons, for the smart and skeptical and disaffected. My longtime boyfriend and I have sincere, romantic plans. If I'm lucky, there may even be chocolate and flowers involved.
Among my friends and colleagues, admitting to enjoying Valentine's Day is about as socially acceptable as including "obey" in your wedding vows: Both seem to demonstrate subscription to outdated, narrow-minded views of romance. For the quintessential example of this anti-Valentines sentiment, I turn to 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, who said in a 2010 episode, "Valentine's Day is a sham created by card companies to reinforce and exploit gender stereotypes." The anti-Valentine's Day crowd is so enormous—look at the movies, the books, and, most of all, the trend pieces and angry tweets—that feeling smug about seeing through the holiday is now akin to feeling superior about buying organic. And a strain of hypocrisy runs through anti-Valentine's Day sentiment as well, in the form of the many profit-seeking ventures that capitalize on the Cupid hatred.
My objection isn't so much about the single folks who find Valentine's Day alienating, a reminder that they don't have a partner. If you're single and unhappy about that, of course it's somewhat upsetting to see so many celebrations of romantic love. Instead, I'm talking about the couples who say they are "above" Valentine's Day. You know what I'm talking about: those who sniff, "We think our love should be celebrated every day" or "I don't need Hallmark to remind me that I love my wife." They make a big deal out of not making a big deal out of Valentine's Day.
In my experience, these Valentine's Day opponents mostly see the holiday as something for the masses, a fake celebration crammed down our national throat. Their pride comes from their ability to resist marketing, and they wear their objections as an emblem of their savvy. A 2008 blog post on the site Credit.com goes through retail estimates of how much the "average consumer" will spend on Valentine's Day, then says, "But then we're not average consumers, right?" The anti-Valentine's Day couple likes to remind you that they are not average consumers. Part of the Valentine's Day hatred is not so much about actually disliking the holiday's crass consumerism—there's no rule that you have to overspend or buy a premade card—than fitting in with a culture of other smart, savvy, pop-culture-and-processed-food haters.
One of the biggest objections to Valentine's Day is that it's widely believed to be a recent invention of the greeting-card industry, with Hallmark taking the brunt of this anti-middlebrow wrath. The accusation is so pervasive that the company has posted on its Web site an article called "Just a Hallmark Holiday? Think Again!"
However, the anger at Hallmark and the charge that Valentine's Day celebration is a relatively modern development are both mistaken. Hallmark deserves neither the credit nor the blame for our Valentine's Day rituals. The company, founded in 1910, printed its first Valentine's Day card in 1913. The holiday itself dates back many centuries before then; it is apparently another pagan holiday that Christians attempted to co-opt, by transforming the Roman fertility celebration Lupercalia into St. Valentine's Day. Valentine's Day cards have been around since at least the 15th century—the first was rumored to have been sent by a duke, held in the Tower of London, to his wife. Their popularity is nothing new, either: In 1917's The Book of Holidays, Joseph Walker McSpadden quotes another writer who claimed that more than 1 million valentines were sent through the London general post office in 1832, and companies have been making valentines since around then. Presumably, some bloke has been grumbling about ye olde empty sentiment since at least 1829.
Jewelry companies, which are another target of anti-Valentine's Day sentiment, are also accused of evangelizing the holiday in recent years to make sales, and that may be true. But men were buying Valentine's baubles for their honeys long before the first Zales ever opened its doors in a suburban shopping mall. The 17th-century diaries of Samuel Pepys contain mention of a woman who received jewels worth several hundred pounds (in 1600s currency!) from her valentines.
Such outlandish expenses continue today, what with the special Valentine's Day prix-fixe menus and lingerie that the anti-Cupid crowd loves to hate. I don't think any couple should celebrate in a way that feels uncomfortable to them, and I certainly have no urge to pay for a prix-fixe meal myself. (No one will tell me what to order!) But you don't have to abandon the holiday entirely just because some people like to get extravagant.
After all, Valentine's Day hatred is frequently promoted by those who have their own profit motives—a rather hypocritical move, it seems. Here, I am referring less to the smug couples than to the single folks who shell out for products that celebrate their loathing of the holiday. A Chicago bakery offers anti-Valentine's Day cookies, with phrases like "I faked it" and "Careful, I break easily," for $2.95 each. There are anti-Valentine's Day gifts, too; Daily Candy recommends spending $135 on a "single" ring for the left hand or a $110 fragrance set, alongside cheaper gifts for the Valentine's Day loather. How is Bar Pilar's anti-Valentine's Day event less exploitive than the prix-fixe menus we all love to mock?
The worst part about Valentine's Day hatred is the way couples sometimes claim that they are just too in love to need it. I know that every day should be about romance, that the calendar shouldn't have to remind my boyfriend and me to take some time out and remember that we adore each other. (Yeah, it's saccharine, but true.) But our calendars are filled with dates that remind us to spend time on something—holidays that encourage us to spend time with family and to remember religious tradition; birthdays to celebrate each person's "cosmic specialness," as a friend of mine likes to say. What's wrong with Valentine's Day fitting into that? Sometimes we do need a reminder to take time out and acknowledge each other.
That's not to say that I am unsympathetic to those who find Valentine's Day to be a sad reminder, something that leaves out those who are not in a relationship; it can also put undue pressure on a relationship that is new or close to breaking. Just say that, then, instead of couching it in this language of superiority. If you dislike Valentine's Day, that's fine, but sentiments like those of the "anti-V.D. card" that says Valentine's Day is for the "brainwashed, vapid, sheeplike moron" (emphasis in the original) are, well, excessive. Maybe that guy would feel less angry and bitter if he just had a little chocolate—or a sweet Valentine's Day hug.
Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project from Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that covers emerging technologies and their implications for society and policy.
Photograph of cupcake by Hemera/Thinkstock.