Valentine’s Day is unimaginative, artificial, and divisive. Single people feel left out. People in relationships are forced to deal with the guilt associated with gift-giving, which provokes an embarrassing sort of consumption-centered anxiety. Then single people get angry with those in relationships for exploiting their plight, or vice versa. Like it or not, consumerism provides the support beams for our culture, so it makes sense that this mentality has merged into our holidays.
We’ve created a love economy, and we are expected to buy into it. Consumerism asks, “How much?” and by translating romance and passion into quantitative measures, emotional gestures become absurdly reductive. Do I need to discuss the stale, commercialized love that is ritualized in Valentine’s Day? You can get there on your own.
Nobody likes Sweethearts. The sappy love songs are horrible.
My friend is more idealistic. He says it’s about celebrating love, and it’s an excuse to do sweet things for significant people in your life—which, he points out, doesn’t have to be restricted to significant others. This troubles me. Why do we need an excuse to be cute and celebrate love? His point is valid, and it feels symptomatic of a larger, more troubling social alienation and fear of affection. The holiday, at its core, is supposed to bring people together through a celebration of their relationships. Why should we need an excuse for this? How can we designate a day to be romantic and exclude the other days? Where’s the authenticity, the spontaneity? It’s a faked sentiment. It’s Hershey’s-brand romance—packaged and stemming from a hunger that the Hershey’s bar doesn’t really relieve. It makes you feel a little sick if you indulge too much. Valentine’s Day allows us to project passion through a series of Hallmark and Disney clichés.
I admit that there is painful irony in hating Valentine’s Day. It is limiting to only see tokens in a reductive light. The holiday idea at its core is sweet, and gift-giving, too, is a gesture of kindness. Certainly there are worse things than having a day dedicated to observing and honoring the idea of love. But that idea gets deformed somewhere along the way.
Chocolate and flowers and romance are all good things. The problem is that chocolate and flowers don’t add up to romance, and none of those things add up to love. What is really the object of desire here—the individual or the kitschy token of affection? Author Milan Kundera called kitsch “the stopover between being and oblivion.” It is ridiculous and morbid to compare the gravestone epitaphs to which Kundera is referring to Valentine’s Day gifts, but it is also helpful. He hints at a certain truth that we’re losing something here. Our expression of love has been cheapened, reduced to a large stuffed rabbit holding a sign that says, “Some Bunny Loves You!” If we have to be so reductive, can’t we at least be a little more original and heartfelt?
Running beneath the problems associated with Valentine’s Day is a certain earnestness which, amongst the cheap chocolates and paper hearts, is easy to miss. We are just trying to have a holiday, which typically has a sacred connotation. What’s happened is that our holiday observation has become cheapened in its commercialization. Although we are just trying to give each other tokens, they are by nature expressions of something abstract in grounded, accessible terms. Kundera thinks gravestone inscriptions are kitschy because they try to summarize a life in a line, and Valentine’s Day may be kitschy since it tries to summarize love in a tacky gift. The tokens of affection associated with this holiday all try to quantify love in terms of more, not enough, or none at all. In short, Valentine’s Day has mutated into a day that doesn’t honor love, but tries to objectify it.