Of all the special days on our calendar, surely Valentine’s Day is the strangest.
Unlike occasions such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Day, or even Christmas and New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day isn’t an official national holiday.
Celebrations such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or Easter are by their very names clear as to their purpose. We take Mom to lunch, we buy Dad a power tool or a book, and we celebrate the resurrection on Easter or at least have a bunny magically bring the kids baskets of candy.
But Valentine’s Day? Really, what’s the point? Is it, as a couple of my friends claim, a holiday concocted by Hallmark cards, chocolate manufacturers, and florists? Is it a festival reeking of artifice and false sentiment? Isn’t February 14, at bottom, bogus in its demands that we shower a beloved with gifts, something we could do any day of the year?
I don’t think so.
No—the older I get, the more I see Valentine’s Day as unique, as rare as a red rose in a February snow. Religion and race play no part on this day. The tags we assign ourselves—liberal, conservative, libertarian—matter not a whit in the festivities of February 14. Moreover, in this dark winter of pandemic and bitter political divisions, we need this day more than ever.
Because, you see, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love.
A Short History
Though we think of February 14 as a day set aside for romance and exchanges of gifts between couples, the event possibly takes its name from a Bishop Valentine martyred by the ancient Romans. Legend has it that on the night before his execution, he wrote a note to the daughter of his jailer, whom he had cured of blindness, and signed it “from your Valentine.”
For centuries, we find no link between romantic love and the feast day of this saint. With the development of “courtly love” in the late Middle Ages, however, the idea of a special day dedicated to romance gained traction, especially among the English. Later, writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and John Donne mentioned “Valentine” in their work, and by the 18th century, people from all social classes in Britain often exchanged gifts or letters on this day.
Colonists carried this tradition to America and to other countries where the English had planted the Union Jack. In the 1840s, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, began manufacturing Valentine’s Day cards, the sales of which exceeded her wildest expectations and eventually brought her the title “the Mother of the American Valentine.”
We now celebrate this feast day with heart-shaped boxes of candy, bouquets of roses, and sweethearts, or conversation sugar hearts, bearing such inscriptions as “Be Mine” or “Miss You,” but maybe it’s time we branched out from that narrow interpretation.
A Festival of Love
Don’t get me wrong. Valentine’s Day should remain the occasion when through gifts, cards, and special meals, we show affection to a beloved, but this year is also the perfect time to expand the scope of this festival of love.
In her sonnet “Love Is Not All,” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote these lines:
“Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, from lack of love alone.”
Those words are a little dramatic for our purposes here, yet how many of us forget to share our affections with those we love? How many of us feel unloved or unappreciated? How many among us at this very moment are making friends with death from lack of love alone?
If we make February 14 a Day of Love, a special time of year when we consciously share appreciation and endearments with our family and our friends, those small efforts might bring some light to this dark old world.
Here are some suggestions to make this happen.
Have the children make cards or drawings, and send them to some relatives: grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. These days, receiving a personal letter in the mail is a rare treat. My grandchildren adore a friend of mine who lives alone—they call him “Uncle John”—and since I’ll be visiting them before Valentine’s Day, I’ll bring along some stamps, envelopes, and paper. We’ll make some special cards and get them in the mail before Valentine’s Day.
Throw a Valentine’s Day party in your home. This year, the 14th falls on a Sunday, a perfect time for sharing a meal and having some fun with friends or family. If the kids are included, you can devise a Valentine treasure hunt. If it’s couples only, you might lift your glass and offer this old toast from Sir Walter Scott: “To every lovely lady bright, I wish a gallant faithful knight; To every faithful lover, too, I wish a trusting lady true.”
Corny? Sure. But no cornier than the sentiments expressed on many gift cards. Besides, corny on this special day can be a good thing.
Reach Out and Touch Someone
We’ve heard a lot this year about social distancing and distance learning, but on February 14 we can practice distance loving. We can call people we love not for a chat about the weather or to discuss the national news, but to tell them simply and directly we are grateful for the role they play in our lives. When is the last time, for example, we talked to our mothers or fathers, or some other person who helped raise us, and thanked them for all they did? In my case, I have two relatives by marriage with whom I haven’t spoken since Christmas, not from any hard feelings but simply from laziness and neglect, putting off those calls to talk with friends and family closer to me. Time for a change.
Gratitude is a handmaiden of love. When’s the last time we thanked our employees for their hard work? When’s the last time we told a friend how grateful we are she’s a part of our life? My wife died almost 17 years ago, and I still find myself wishing I had complimented her more for all the good things she brought into my life. Sure, these people may know how we feel about them, but most of us welcome a word of appreciation. It’s a small thing, requiring minimum effort, but often has the power to deliver a great gift to the recipient.
Embrace the Day
Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote an article titled “10 Tips for Men to Survive Valentine’s Day.” While aimed at guys, including myself, who often resent this holiday, one of those tips offers this advice:
“Instead of enduring or disparaging Valentine’s Day, why not have some fun? You must mark the occasion anyway, so why not whoop it up? Make the evening an extravaganza for the woman you love and for yourself. Here’s a great excuse to dine at that Thai restaurant you’ve wanted to try, or to visit that brewery you both enjoy. Invite some friends to your house or apartment, and throw a party.”
A few of my family members are Moravians, a Protestant group similar to Lutherans. Every once in a while, Moravian services include a lovefeast, a time during church when sweet buns and beverages are served—the lovefeasts I have attended featured sweet coffee with cream—to enhance fellowship and the ancient idea of agape, the highest form of love.
On Valentine’s Day, let’s emulate that practice of fellowship. Let’s spread the joy of this day as far and as wide as we can, and make Valentine’s Day a lovefeast that will bring smiles and warm hearts to all those people we treasure.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.