Quick! What do you get when you mix history, myth, marketing, romance, and angst? Yes, indeed—Saint Valentine’s Day.
Many of us think, “Meh. Another commercial holiday for greeting-card companies to make money.” And, indeed, they do. The Greeting Card Association reports that men (15%) and women (85%) send an estimated 1 million Valentine’s Day cards annually. That makes V-Day second only to Christmas (2.6 million) in cards sent.
But perhaps we give companies such as Hallmark too much credit. The day didn’t originate with them—they’ve just found a way to capitalize on it. As have florists, chocolatiers—and anybody associated with Madison Avenue.
So how did it start? Since at least Roman times, people have associated the month of February with romance. But V-Day is not simply Valentine’s Day. It’s Saint Valentine’s Day. And why did the church choose February 14 for this saint’s day? Perhaps as an “alternative” celebration, similar to how some Christians have Harvest Festivals around the time of Halloween. Or perhaps because one of the three priests named Valentine listed in the martyrology died on that date. Possibly two of these were the same man. But my point is not to examine the history with all its “ifs” and “buts.” Although the background of the holiday is murky, the saints’ stories emphasize that Valentine was a romantic figure who was sympathetic, heroic, and Christ-like.
And that last point is important, as my friend Kathy reminds us. Self-described as a never-married single, she writes, “The history of V-Day going back to St. Valentine is encouraging. The focus becomes Christ. We are His bride. Since we are all his bride, no one is left out. Too often the church leaves people feeling left out, not included, and less than.”
The constant reminder about one’s marital status can make it difficult to remember such truths. Consequently, some bemoan February 14 as “Singles Identification Day,” and run for cover until the frenzy passes. Julie says, “Every time I see a certain person he says: ‘Aren't you married yet? You're not getting any younger.’ I'd put that on the ‘Don't do’ list!” Her experience is not an isolated case. Consequently, the day can come as a stinging reminder when one already feels like “the other.” Last year Kathi’s daughter and her roommate toasted long-stem roses over a charcoal grill in the backyard of their apartment to “celebrate” the day.
But the pressure can come from within, as well. Marnie writes, “Being single on this day often results in a comparison game of our lives to others. It can be a reminder of ‘what we don't have but greatly desire.’ It can be a day when it’s easier to believe the lie, ‘you're not worth loving,’ instead of the truth, ‘You are loved, chosen and fully accepted.’ It can be a day of loneliness and silent hurt.”
Lacie copes by embracing humor. She writes, “Have you seen Jon Acuff's “Stuff Christians Like” post on singleness and the church? It's pretty hilarious. The comments below [the article] might actually be my favorite part.”
This is not to say singles all sit around pining on V-Day. Carol writes, “As a single who isn't looking nor desires to look, I see Valentine's Day as a day for those involved with someone to really show their love. I try to be accommodating and work so others don't have to.” Nika looks forward to discounted candy on February 15. Julie makes the day all about family and food. Laura Beth enjoys the extra cash she earns babysitting for couples.
And the group of those who have negative or ambivalent associations with the day is broader than a sub-set of never-marrieds. Consider those divorced, separated from spouses, and widowed. My older sister, bereft of her husband due to a texting driver, says, “Ever since my husband died, several friends have sent me Valentine's cards in the mail. Warms my heart. My son usually gets me flowers. They know how hard it is.” Military spouses often experience the day as an acute reminder of a loved-one’s absence. And those who have suffered break-ups can feel especially alone.
But even many married people say, “Who needs the pressure to express love on demand?” Sharifa writes, “I am kind of a Grinch when it comes to this particular holiday, though I love love.” Susan feels frustrated that “there is a lot of cultural focus on either relational appeasement or ego gratification.”
Valentine’s Day is special for me because it was the day I trusted Christ as a fourteen-year-old. But I still appreciate the ambivalence. Having been married more than thirty-seven years, I “get” that love goes far deeper than romance. Randy quotes Howard Hendricks on this: “If you fall in love with a body, every day you will be more disappointed.” (And the same goes for your spouse.) Even the world acknowledges this. Pointing to an article in The Atlantic titled, “Marriage is Not a '24/7 Sleepover Party,'” Laura Beth notes that marriage is "not all flowers, candy, and romance. It’s something deeper.” And sometimes the holiday about flowers, candy, and romance can feel shallow. Or obligatory. Or a big disappointment if one’s spouse “fails” to deliver.
Debbie sees the holiday as a time to think about relationships, regardless of one’s status. She recommends that marrieds and singles alike read The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller, describing the book as one of the best ever on relationships and marriage.
Christine tells how some use the day as an opportunity to “give back that which has been given to us.” She tells of friends who host “a party designed to promote Love146's ministry to sex-trafficking victims. They have invited people of all ages and marital statuses. It's a beautiful reminder to think outwardly and corporately (regardless of status) about how we can be part of change. Valentine's Day can be a reminder to love. Who are we loving well?” She goes on to recount her own story: “I didn't marry until I was 35—and a couple of things really helped me enjoy Valentine's Day more: (1) Expanding my idea of celebrating Valentine's Day to encompass more than just a sweetheart, such as sending cards or notes and making phone calls to good friends and family members (I still do this, especially for my single girlfriends). (2) Celebrating on the actual day with good friends. Even just a girls’ dinner out really helped to make the holiday special and not lonely.”
Susan adds, [It’s] very, very rare to see Valentine's Day as a celebration of relationship (whether romantic or platonic or familial). Why can't it be a day to rejoice over a heart’s strings that are attached to other people—and this from a chocoholic!”
Actually, in some places, the day is exactly that. When I was in Mexico during Valentine’s Day one year, I learned that our hosts saw February 14 as “The Day of Love and Friendship.” When a Mexican church leader asked me, a married woman, to be his valentine, I went slack-jawed until someone explained that he was simply declaring his friendship. Sean, a man of Japanese descent, says that in his country the women buy the men chocolates on Valentines Day, regardless of marital status. He concludes, “Never question the Japanese—they had the samurai. And ninjas.”
One year on V-Day, my man and I were apart because he was in Africa. My sister and brother-in-law, knowing I was alone, invited me over for a fancy dinner along with my daughter and two of their single women friends. We all laughed and enjoyed a wonderful evening together—singles, marrieds, and far-aparts. This couple’s sacrifice of what could have been their “date night” turned an otherwise lonely time into a “ro-tic” (romantic without the "man") night St. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. And I ask you—how can we, in the spirit of the martyrs, show real love? Doing so might require more than a card. Shawn reminds us, “Valuing people, whether single, dating, or married, helps when lame, ‘this is what the world says I should do or be holidays’ come around. Love covers a multitude of sins.” On February 14, we have an opportunity to show what agape really is—a picture of the one who gave his all for the sake of love. And that’s true regardless of our “status.”
This post originally ran in 2013. Go here to read comments.