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Nobody really knows how Valentine’s Day began. Depending on your sources, its origins can be traced back to an ancient Roman fertility festival involving sacrificial goats or to a Chaucer poem about birds. “It is one of those mysterious historical or antiquarian problems which are doomed never to be solved,” The Times wrote in 1853.
It’s perhaps just as well that the holiday’s history remains disputed. Either thousands or hundreds of years later, Americans seem likewise unable to agree on whether Valentine’s Day is a hallowed celebration, a marketing scam that entrenches the hegemony of the nuclear family or just a harmless convention that everyone needs to calm down about. Here’s a bouquet of perspectives to help you figure out your feelings about the tradition, which, unlike most relationships, is not going to end.
‘Occupy Valentine’s Day’
This year, Americans are expected to set a record for Valentine’s Day spending: $27.4 billion, up 32 percent from last year’s $20.7 billion, which was also a record. That’s about $196 per celebrator (about $15 of which goes to friends and $12 to pets). If that seems like too much money to you, perhaps consider joining in the long tradition of anti-consumerist Valentine’s Day curmudgeonry. “There was a time when Valentine’s Day meant something. … We hate this modern degeneracy, this miscellaneous and business fashion,” The New York Daily Tribune wrote in 1847. “Now nobody makes more than a joke of it.”
The commercialization has gotten so extreme that it needs to be protested, wrote Samhita Mukhopadhyay back in 2012. (Ms. Mukhopadhyay is now the executive editor of Teen Vogue.) Modern love is governed by a romantic-industrial complex, she argued, that profits by enforcing and then exploiting romantic desires and insecurities: “The more you express your love through candies, chocolates, diamonds, rentals and registries, the more the R.I.C. makes!” In her view, romantic people deserve better, more authentic and sustainable ways to express their affections. “Above all, let’s find a way to honor ourselves that does not rely on buying stuff.”
But there is something to be said for extravagant displays of affection, writes Elizabeth Flock. A child of divorce, she recounts an experience of interviewing over the course of a decade three couples in Mumbai, whom she perceived as modeling a more generous, less reserved form of love than she was accustomed to. “Over that time, their relationships and marriages waxed and waned. But they never gave up the over-the-top gestures,” she writes. “It seemed to me then — and does now — a perfect antidote to the fatigue of a marriage. A way to cut through the mundane.”
The yearly ritual of Valentine’s Day is sometimes just what’s needed to keep a seasoned relationship vibrant, writes Annaliese Griffin. “I’m hugely cynical about branded opportunities to buy things and romantic love as sold to us by movies and magazines, yet my husband and I celebrate this manufactured consumer holiday every year with a bottle of delicious wine, a cheese plate and sparkling conversation,” she writes. “The excuse to sit and do nothing but chat, to reminisce a bit about when we were younger and less harried, is a gift, one that emerged from repetition, from doing the same thing every year on this maudlin, crushed-velvet, chocolate-dipped holiday that I love.”
More often than not, the anti-consumerist critique of Valentine’s Day is a defense mechanism, says Alana Massey. “Valentine’s Day is so difficult not because it makes love a commodity but because it presents us with the challenge of looking at the richness, or lack thereof, of our romantic lives,” she writes. “When people say, ‘I hate Valentine’s Day,’ what they often mean is, ‘I hate being forced to take inventory of the quality and volume of love in my life.’”
‘You are better off being single’
Few holidays inspire a greater sense of victimization among those who fall outside the charmed circle of its intended devotees than Valentine’s Day. Said one sad single person in The Journal of Business Research: “I would like to extend a warm thanks to Hallmark, the official sponsor of Valentine’s day, for reminding me that without a significant other, how truly worthless my life is.”
But romantic love is not the only kind of love worth honoring, as Briallen Hopper argues in her book of essays, “Hard to Love.” She is one of a growing number of people who now observe “Galentine’s Day,” a holiday on Feb. 13 that Amy Poehler’s character on the TV show “Parks and Recreation” invented to celebrate female friendships.
Single people may actually be better off on Valentine’s Day anyway, write the philosopher Neil McArthur and the economist Marina Adshade. The compulsion to give gifts creates a version of what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma, they contend, which inevitably leaves lovers feeling either slighted or inefficiently satisfied: “If you are single on Valentine’s Day, you are only missing out on the opportunity to participate in an exercise that makes everyone involved worse off than they would have been had the holiday not existed at all.”
‘A cauldron of unmet expectations’
Valentine’s Day perpetuates a tyrannical fantasy of what love should look like, according to Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Boston University. “The whole holiday conspires to make people feel that they’re not living up to this standard of lovely romance,” she told The Washington Post in 2015. Even then, social media was already making matters worse by expanding public practices of self-performance and concealment: “No one puts up an ugly picture of themselves, or the bad gift they got from CVS.”
The social pressure the holiday exerts can be particularly irksome for queer people, writes Yas Necati. “It pushes society’s ideal of what our relationships ‘should’ look like — heterosexual, monogamous, sexual, romantic,” they write. “If you don’t have this — whether that’s because you don’t want to or you just don’t — you are considered to be failing in the eyes of a society that pushes us all, inevitably, towards the nuclear family ideal.”
But you can always accept that this holiday isn’t for you, Vanessa Rasanen has argued in The Federalist. “If you don’t need a special day to celebrate your marriage or your relationship — or you don’t have any special someone to celebrate with — no one is forcing you,” she writes. “This holiday is for the people with busy lives, who don’t mind chocolate coming in a heart-shaped box once in a while, who like having one day marked on their hectic calendars to take a bit more time to celebrate love and relationship and life together.”