St. Valentine’s Day gets a bad rap, and very unfairly, I think. I’d like to take a moment to counter some of the most common objections.
1. The hipster objection. The first knock on Valentine’s Day is that it has become too commercialized: branded, rebranded, overstocked, undersold, and put on clearance. True enough, and the same of course is true of other holidays, especially Christmas. Unwilling or unable to acknowledge the deep Christian roots of our culture, we obscure them with the relatively inoffensive rituals of commerce. This cutting of the cultural and historical cord has the effect of making the holiday seem “inauthentic.” But if the price of avoiding bad taste (and saving Valentine’s from the advertisers) is publicly reclaiming our Christian moral inheritance, I doubt many hipsters will continue to press their objections. So long as our culture is above all capitalist and consumerist, our widely celebrated holidays will be too.
2. The religious objection. Cranks will deny that Valentine’s Day even has, properly speaking, religious roots. Many still think that Valentine’s really comes from the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, but scholars have now rejected that view wholesale. The facts are these: There were several St. Valentines and we know little about them other than that they were all martyrs. The one commonly associated with the holiday, the bishop of Terni, was killed for his faith on February 14, 269. The holiday as we know it was more or less invented by Geoffrey Chaucer, when he commemorated the engagement of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia by writing the Parliament of Fowls, a spectacular poem that weaves together traditions of courtly romance with the English folk belief that birds took their mate on the feast day of St. Valentine. Yes, the connection between Valentine’s martyrdom and courtly love is a historical accident. But what could be more fitting than to celebrate romance on the feast day of a man who gave his life for the highest love? This is especially true this year, when an illiberal libertinism seeks to compel the church to pay for abortion, contraception, and sterilization—things opposed to Christian marriage and chaste singlehood, and so to romance rightly understood.
3. The convention objection. Another reason many balk at Valentine’s is that it reminds us of a truth that should be obvious in any case: we mate conventionally. Despite a tremendous, decades-long effort to liberate sexuality from social bonds and the habits of culture, love and sex are as scripted as ever. We don’t speak of the hookup “culture” for nothing: it’s no more spontaneous than the courtship rituals of the old English countryside. We have to be open to sex but be careful about things “getting personal.” We say we want “random play” but we still follow social cues and fret about public appearances. It’s a confused state to be in, and Valentine’s, with its public rituals of flower delivery and dinner dates, is a healthy (if unwelcome) reminder that convention still rules.
4. The sentimental objection. This is the objection I find most convincing. Many say that Valentine’s contributes to an unattainable, Disneyfied idea of romantic love (and sex and marriage) as goods necessary for any fulfilled life. Such an exalted view makes it necessary that all people who are to live fully enter into marriage. Further, people must be able to enter into marriage with someone to whom they are personally and physically attracted (hence the need to extend marriage to same-sex couples despite the fact that those people were always free to marry opposite-sex partners). I’ll admit that Valentine’s has played its part in promoting this profound inversion of the Pauline counsel. We indeed do need to affirm the quotidian nature of marriage, to insist that it is valid and binding after the fire has gone out. And we need to do much more to honor the richness of a life free from eros, let alone sex. But this doesn’t require that we reject wholesale the ideal of courtly love. Indeed, Chaucer’s character in the Parliament of Fowls outlines the ways of romance even while suggesting it’s a possibility somehow closed off to him. We need not all participate in an ideal to applaud it.
And so it is: even if you won’t be going on a date tonight and have no taste for conversation hearts, it’s well worth celebrating a holiday that has ancient origins, a medieval heart, and much to teach us still.
Matthew Schmitz is the literary editor of First Things.