As we head toward the middle of February, the world paints itself in pinks and reds, expressions of affection, anatomically incorrect hearts and overpriced flowers, and a myriad of ways to say, “I love you,” carefully crafted by greeting card companies (and usually accompanied by an abundance of glitter). It’s Valentine’s Day, a strange and perplexing holiday in which we are, in general, encouraged to express love and affection for those in our lives- specifically romantic entanglements.
Certainly, those who are unpartnered are encouraged to celebrate the love of friends and family, and parents are encouraged to celebrate love for their children (usually assuming their children are prepubescent), and children are encouraged to send well-wishes to other students in their classes (even the bully that takes their lunch money), but the reality is, Valentine’s Day is a couple’s holiday, a time to celebrate That Special Someone in your life. I suppose I sound a bit pessimistic about the whole business; Valentine’s Day tends to strike me as a capitalist, consumer holiday intended to reinvigorate the market after the inevitable lull immediately following Christmas.
My somewhat cynical and skeptical perspective on Valentine’s Day may seem antithetical to the purpose of the holiday- after all, shouldn’t we take any and all opportunities to express our love and affection for the people we care about? I think a part of me rebels at the mandate- this is the day that we show how much we love one another- because a part of me believes, much like the Christmas spirit, that we should seek to live with that in our daily lives, and not once or twice a year.
As a polyamorous person, I also struggle because there are few (if any) representations of the ways that I love. No one is my “everything,” nor do I have a “love of my life.” I have those that I love deeply, those that I hope to grow old with, those that I have known and loved now for over half of my life, those with whom I have deep, committed partnerships that do not include a sexual component, those for whom sex is the basis of our relationship (but that is a kind of love, too, for me). The point is, dividing my time and trying to find ways to express and share the multitudes of affection and love and care that I have in my life is an overwhelming task anyway, let alone trying to cram it all into one day.
And as I begin to think about non-monogamy, I immediately think of kink, and the ways that affection is something expressed in BDSM. Without consent and thorough discussion, of course, much of what we do in kink and BDSM would be considered abusive…and as I am mulling over Valentines day, I cannot help but think of intimate partner violence and non-consensual interactions within couples. I think of the couples going out to dinner and a movie, those who are meeting someone for a first date, and wonder how many people will have sex that night because they feel they “owe” it to their partner to do so? How many people will be coerced, manipulated, or forced into sexual situations because someone else has their heart set on getting laid on the lover’s holiday?
Perhaps this is a dark and pessimistic way to think about Valentine’s Day, but it’s a difficult thing to stomach when we celebrate a day dedicated to couples and partnerships but consistently silence those who speak out about intimate partner violence. The rise of #MeToo has certainly shown the dangers and fears that women experience- not just single women who are dating, but women who are married or in long-term relationships (and this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of assault and abuse men experience, and the added weight of toxic masculinity making it that much harder to break the silence there).
These things also bring me to thoughts of sending my daughter to school on Valentine’s Day: will she get one of those small, store-bought valentine’s from someone in her class, asking her to be their girlfriend? At 9 years old, she’s struggling to understand what that even means. Will she have to give out valentines to her classmates- from the boy she has a crush on to the kid that makes fun of her and picks on her? I appreciate and respect the idea that no one be excluded and everyone gets a valentine, but I also struggle with the idea of teaching children to offer mandatory affection to those who consistently cross their boundaries.
But I also think about my own partners, the people that I love deeply and dearly. I think about bringing home flowers for one, because he likes getting flowers, and flowers for the other, because people rarely bring him flowers. I think about the texts I’ll send that day- one to a similarly-cynical lover that will express affection while recognizing that the whole thing is ridiculous; one to a sweetheart who appreciates small recognitions and gestures more than they are able to articulate; one to someone who takes immense pleasure in the moments of care and affection, whatever the purpose or reason behind them. I think about how we all work together to make it work.
I don’t particularly care for Valentine’s Day, not because I dislike the sentiment, but because it feels flat, one-dimensional, and only accessible to that part of the population who has managed to find someone they resonate with. I love the idea of expressing love, care, and affection in consensual, non-coercive ways… but I don’t think that is well-encompassed in Valentine’s Day.
Show love. Express care, express gratitude, tell the people that you love them that you do, often and frequently. But do it every day… and not one the one day of the year where roses are overpriced and Hallmark has found every possible iteration of “I love you” in glittery, cursive script. Celebrate on Valentine’s Day with the ones you love… and the days before, and the days after, until love is the permeating presence in your life.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Be My Valentine!
It rolls off the lips and the pen pretty easily. And often feels good.
But what if it doesn’t?
I remember some years of singlehood when there was as much pain as joy on this day. I am sure I am not the only one.
There is also the question of determining just who is my Valentine? My husband, surely, but are there others, or is this really only about mates?
When they were little and I was divorced from their mother, I sent Valentine’s to my three daughters. Then a friend pointed out that as they reached puberty it might be a little creepy. I stopped sending them. Now I send to my three- and six-year-old granddaughters. I assume I will stop at the appropriate moment.
The traditional, overwhelming heterosexism of this social custom makes me wonder if I would have sent Valentines to my sons or will send them to any grandsons that may yet bless our lives?
But there are more customs, or history, of this day which make it more problematic than I used to understand. Like most major celebrations, some of the details can create conflicting emotions. Christmas—because the date which the church chose was intended to supersede the Roman holiday of Saturnalia—comes to mind.
Valentine’s Day seems to have had a far more checkered past. According to National Public Radio,
From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.
The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.
The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.
In addition to the date, Ancient Rome may also be responsible for the name. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.
Still what’s history got to do with it? Maybe more.
This holiday has become a wonderful midwinter jolt to commercial activity. Prior to the development of improved printing techniques in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, most people made handmade Valentine greetings.
Now, the Greeting Card Association claims more than one billion cards are exchanged (150 million in the United States). While the number startled me when I first encountered it, it reminded that the holiday is popular in places outside the U.S.! This compares to 2.6 billion cards exchanged at Christmas. Still, when you add in chocolate and flowers and other gifts of endearment, Valentine’s Day is a commercial high point.
February also is Black History Month. I used to hear complaints from Black people that, of course, it is the shortest month of the year! I don’t know if they were being ironic or angry, or most likely both. It seems clear to me that the first half of Black History Month often gets subsumed by preparations for and celebrations of Valentine’s Day.
I do know that Black History Month grew up organically in the African American community, instigated largely by the late and renowned historian, Carter G. Woodson. He was inspired by how in the 1890s local and state Black communities had begun having celebrations of Black History Week, built around the adjacent birthdays of two heroes, Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Great man that Lincoln was, it is Douglass whose birth and life deserve far more attention than they receive. An interesting note: Douglass, born a slave in Maryland without a birth record, decided as an adult that his birthday, known to be in February, should be on February 14—because he remembered that his mother kept calling him her “little Valentine.”
Tonight, my husband and I are planning to go out for a Valentine’s Day dinner, something we have not done in some years. I intend to offer a toast to Douglass at dinner, and I intend in the days leading up to and including February 14 to make small efforts on Facebook and elsewhere to raise awareness of Douglass. His love for himself and his people furnish an excellent example of love in action.
As a queer theologian, I am unsettled by Valentine’s Day. Honoring the martyrdom of the first St. Valentine’s by the Roman Catholic Church is understandable, indeed commendable. But presumably it was their love of God and Jesus that got them killed. Now we use the day to honor people with cards and gifts. Where is the day to honor those who sacrifice for love?
It all feels too much like what we do with the birth of Jesus—make it a feast for ourselves rather than understanding and honoring the demands and possibilities of love that knows and accepts no boundaries.
Would Valentine’s Day not be better spent engaging in “love projects”—organizing and undertaking actions to create change in the lives of others? How about something as simple as going to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or women’s shelter to offer help? What about spending the day with a shut-in who would be glad for some attention or maybe a trip to the store or a movie?
Is not love more than a feeling, more than a way we feel about one person or even a few special people? Is it not more than cards, flowers, and candy? Is it not a way of life to be shared with all, for all, through all?
I have come to believe that love is an orientation toward life, it is how God calls us to live each moment of our lives. The central question becomes not so much who do I love but how do I love—how do I love myself and the world, enough to risk it all, like Frederick Douglass, to create change? He was not martyred, but he gave unstintingly of himself to the cause of his people to rise above the vileness of slavery and Jim Crow, to create in their own eyes, if not in the eyes of most others, the beloveds of God they were and are.
For me, today is Frederick Douglass Day at least as much as Valentine’s Day.
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