When I was a kid, Valentine’s Day was almost always a disappointment.
On February 14th, everyone would come to elementary school with little cards adorned with hearts and made for children. The cards would have some cute picture on them, perhaps a puppy saying, “Doggone! Won’t you be my Valentine?” The kids would scrawl their signatures on the backs, ready for what came next. The teacher would already have written each child’s name on a paper sack, then taped the sacks in a neat row hanging from the chalk tray. At the appointed time, the students would rise from their seats and distribute Valentines to their friends (and those they secretly wished would be their friends).
In essence, it ended up being a ritually enacted popularity contest. The least popular kids would look quickly in their sacks, find little more than a card from the teacher, and slink quietly back to their seats. Being younger, chubbier, nerdier, and of the wrong ethnic background, I was not–ahem–the most popular kid in the class.
I’m not bitter about it. (Really.) My point is that all of this is a long way from the original feast day commemorating a martyred saint. From the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer to the contemporary Hallmark holiday we now know as adults, Valentine’s Day has become a celebration of romantic love, for which the grade school ritual seemed to serve as a proper indoctrination.
I’m not going to rain all over romance or tell you that it’s just your hormones talking (oxytocin, if anyone’s asking). But let’s be honest.
Someone who is not in a romantic relationship shouldn’t be left feeling like half a person. A young couple who has to chase triplets all day shouldn’t consider themselves a failure if they can’t manage a candlelight dinner. Diamond-studded hearts are not obligatory proofs of love, regardless of what the folks at De Beers might say. And people in long-term, committed marriages shouldn’t regret that their relationships have mellowed into something more settled than their courtship days.
I’m not telling anyone not to buy chocolates or flowers–or even diamonds, for that matter. But it’s one thing to do it because it legitimately symbolizes a love that is tangibly expressed year-round, and another to do it because you think you’ll be in trouble if you don’t.
Romantic moments in a relationship should be received as gifts without being held up as the standard for the relationship as a whole. What matters more than romance is love of the self-giving kind: not just passion, but compassion.
By all means, celebrate Valentine’s Day and enjoy whatever tender memories you create. But don’t get mired in the marketing propaganda that first define love as romance, and then make romance something that requires conspicuous consumption.
Whatever you do on February 14th, do it against the background of a self-giving love that you strive to embody in your relationship the other 364 days of the year.