In Defense of Valentine’s Day

I’ve always been distrustful of holidays used by corporations to sell their products more efficiently — I militantly oppose the extreme spending on Halloween, and Santa Claus makes me shiver. And yet, in a surprising turn of events, I don’t hate Valentine’s Day. Despite all the horrible plastic hearts in shop windows all around New Haven, I can’t bring myself to be disgusted by this celebration of love. There is something pure about it, something that even ruthless corporate marketing cannot ruin.

The majority of my friends dislike the holiday, citing one main reason: the commercial exploitation of a day meant to be an intimate romantic affair, celebrated in private. That stance can be hard to disagree with. The total spending in the United States during Valentine’s Day is a ludicrous figure: CNN reports that in 2016, it climbed to $19.7 billion. In the week leading up to Feb. 14, consumers purchase about 58 million pounds of chocolate and 180 million Hallmark cards. Some end up spending entire paychecks on material gifts — and frequently, their spending doesn’t even seem to stem from genuine generosity. People in relationships often feel pressured into buying gifts for their partners just to fulfill expectations or avoid unnecessary fights. As The Atlantic put it in 2014, “Valentine’s Day isn’t about love, it’s about obligation.” After all, there are 364 other days when you can show affection and appreciation for your partner, right? Why let corporate America dictate the pace of our personal relationships?

Well, in this particular case, I say: why not? A set day in the calendar simplifies making plans for a night out, creates a space for reciprocal affection, makes an ordinary day special. It also sets up a time frame for romantic gestures, a night when you won’t make other plans. Sure, you can do romantic things on any given day; nobody’s stopping you. But Valentine’s Day provides an anchor in our busy everyday lives. I don’t think it’s the global organization of the holiday that people dislike — most people aren’t uncomfortable with the demonstrations of love or gift-giving themselves, but rather with the obligation of reciprocation it places on them. Time’s statistics show that both men and women who are in relationships want their lovers to shell out an average of $240, which shows an important truth: people like receiving gifts given out of love. And they like it despite the expected reciprocity, despite the stress of picking out the perfect gift. They expect to celebrate the connection they have with another human being. The fact that 50 percent of marriage proposals in the U.S. happen on Valentine’s Day is no accident. The purpose of Valentine’s Day is to tell your loved ones that you love them — why should we scorn that?

Despite the extreme material consumption that seems to come hand in hand with Valentine’s Day, it’s a wholesome holiday at heart, a little like Mother’s Day. Sure, it’s hard to figure out what the people we care about truly want or need, but the effort is usually worth it. We don’t need to spend a fortune — ultimately, we just need to show we care. We can also do that every day, in small gestures, but doesn’t staging a bigger show from time to time make a relationship seem all the more special?

Another critique of Valentine’s Day usually concerns single people. In a 2007 study published by the Association for Consumer Research, one interviewee said, “I would like to extend a warm thanks to Hallmark, the official sponsor of Valentine’s Day, for reminding me how truly worthless my life is without a significant other.” To that person, I would like to extend a warm, virtual hug. Although Valentine’s Day has a widespread image as a romantic holiday, it would be an oversimplification to say that’s all it represents. According to Bloomberg, more than half of the American population self-identifies as single, and yet, they seem to be buying gifts for their loved ones, too. On average, a single man will spend $71 and a single woman will spend $40. When people search for the query “Valentine’s Day Gifts For…” online, 20 percent of people type “friend” as the final word, while only 17 percent type in “boyfriend.” In 2016, a reported 19 percent of people also bought Valentine’s gifts for their pets. Clearly, you don’t have to be in a relationship to participate in the holiday.

More importantly, love can’t be measured by the amount of money spent. The true value of Valentine’s Day rests upon intimate moments with our loved ones. The holiday gives us space to remember how grateful we are to have people we can trust, how glad we are to walk the world with somebody by our side, to have someone support us in times of trouble. People have loved sending each other Valentine’s cards since the 1840s — as a symbol of affection they hoped would never die. Why stop doing that now?

So before you indignantly turn your back on kitsch Valentine’s Day decorations, remember that beneath all the neon pink, you can find a heart of gold.