This year is the first Valentine’s Day I have ever experienced while in a relationship. It’s a strange feeling, and one that prompted me to dive a little deeper into the complex entanglement of feelings I have around this ‘holiday’ or ‘celebration.’
For starters, Valentine’s Day originated as a Christian celebration in honor of Saint Valentine. There are various Saints named Valentine who are said to be associated with the celebration, but the most remarkable is Saint Valentine of Rome. He was imprisoned because he was willing to perform marriage ceremonies for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry according to Roman law.
The day first became associated with romantic love rather than just spiritual or religious notions of ‘love thy neighbor’ around the 14th century, when the literary trope of courtly love was popularized by authors like Chaucer and Dante. In 18th century England, it turned into a day for people to express their love for each other through the gifting of flowers, candy or greeting cards; the Valentine’s tradition we know until this day. Of course, Valentine’s Day gifts have since fallen victim to mass production, and in 2018, the total estimated Valentine’s Day spending in the United States alone was $19.6 billion . I don’t know anything about economics but that sounds like a lot of money.
55% of Americans celebrated Valentine’s Day in 2018. That’s more than half. Marketing strategies have succeeded in relaying the focus of Valentine’s Day to hidden love. It is the day of secret admirers and furtive glances, and that’s cool. When I was fourteen, I loved that stuff. My school organized an anonymous rose-gifting committee and I was hoping for a rose all day. I didn’t fancy anyone at the time, and I had no idea who my desired rose would come from. I also had a sense of dread; what if I received a rose from someone I wasn’t the least bit drawn to? Would I feel obligated to anything just because someone random had gifted me a rose?
No rose came for me that day, which made me realize something: Valentine’s Day romanticizes the unknown. It romanticizes the furtive glances, the pining from afar. Some part of that has recently become slightly icky to me. The purity of the stereotypical admirer has been corrupted. In light of the #MeToo movement, I have become confident enough to say this: I don’t want someone pining from afar. I don’t want my every move to be over-analyzed by someone who does not have the guts to approach me. It’s creepy to think that there is something purer, better or more honest about unconsummated love. I think romanticizing the secret admirer is a slippery slope to romanticizing a dynamic where women are passive recipients of admiration without agency, where a woman’s greatest achievement is to be desired, to be validated by men. For me, #MeToo is about opposing that dynamic; women are not around for men’s enjoyment and not every show of affection is welcome. Let’s all be open and honest and unassuming about our feelings for each other. Don’t ‘suffer’ in silence, there is nothing noble about that. Own up to it.
Maybe don’t own up on Valentine’s Day, though. The date lends a lot of weight to your declaration of love. Tell people you like them when you like them. You don’t need a $19 billion dollar industry to back you up. Be brave. Do it every day. If you’re really into someone, isn’t that relevant every single day of the year? I understand that it’s scary, and you might feel like you need an extra push, but don’t let that push be Valentine’s Day. Let it be that person’s smile, or their sense of humor, or something you saw that made you think of them.
Now that I’m in a relationship, Valentine’s Day has undoubtedly lost its glamour. I am not hoping for anything in secret. But I have also learned that hoping in secret does not do anyone any good, and you run the risk of never getting what you want. Voice your desires, speak up, and you will save yourself and everyone else a lot of time and energy.
PS: We are dining out tonight. Just because every excuse to have a lovely meal together is a good one.