Valentine’s Day has always been, for me, a paradoxical time of year. It falls during my least favorite month, in the dreariest part of the winter with the most snow and ice, and the least amount of sun. No matter what the calendar says, no one can convince me that February is not the longest month of the year. Yet, I’ve always enjoyed Valentine’s Day. I grew up loving romance stories. I was raised on romcoms and classic romance movies, and one or another of Jane Austen novels always make my top five book list each year. The BBC 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries is a regular comfort watch of mine, February or not, and the advent of Parks and Recreation’s Galentine’s Day only added to my enjoyment of the holiday. (And the chocolate is always fantastic.)
However, cynicism always seems to come attached to the celebration. The older I get, the more the holiday seems to be attached to having a romantic partner. Think of the flurry of proposals we will see across campus and on Instagram in the next 48 hours. For anyone without a significant other, the holiday can be less enjoyable or sometimes even downright uncomfortable. What happened to the Valentine’s Day exchanges I remember from elementary school? To the excitement of choosing themed Valentine’s Day cards I handed out to my classmates, anticipating the chocolate and candy from friends, and decorating a holiday basket to collect the valentines in? I remember blushing excitement at the thought of giving those little notes of heartfelt sentiment to my friends and classmates and of receiving notes of appreciation and encouragement from those same friends.
To understand what has happened to the Valentine’s Day I loved as a child, I’ve gone back to its beginnings. February 14th is the Christian feast day honoring Saint Valentine of Rome. Although his identity as a single individual is debated and many of the events of his life are shrouded in mystery, most agree that Valentine was martyred outside of Rome in the late third century. The reason for Valentine’s execution also remains unclear, though some sources cite his attempt to convert the emperor to Christianity as his capital offense. One of his more noteworthy miracles saw him restoring sight to the blind daughter of the judge first in charge of his case, which led to the conversion of their entire house. Prior to his execution, Valentine is said to have sent a note to the girl he healed signed “from your Valentine,” the probable origin of the phrase used in modern texts. Nowhere in his early legends was there any definitive link to romantic love of any kind.
Our modern romantic associations with Valentine’s Day really begin with the traditions of l’amour courtois (‘courtly love’) from the Middle Ages. Courtly love centers around the stories of a man who falls for a woman inaccessible to him because she is of a different social class or is already married. Suffering for an impossible love was depicted as one of the highest forms of love. These stories became extremely popular among European nobility, particularly in France by the musical efforts of the troubadours of the twelfth century and remained popular throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. The theme of impossible love saw a resurgence during the Romantic period, and modern romantic stories still play off of this trope–think Casablanca (1942) or even the false dilemma in While You Were Sleeping (1995). These stories formed the basis of the Western understanding of romance that still persists today.
The Valentine holiday wasn’t directly associated with courtly love and romantic practices until the later 14th century, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of Valentine’s Day as the day when birds found their mates. Romantic associations with the holiday soon took hold across Europe. The oldest known valentine note was a poem written by Charles d’Orléans in 1415, during his time as an English prisoner of war in the Hundred Years War, nearly a thousand years after the declaration of a feast day by the Catholic Church in 496. The popularity of sending valentines to friends and lovers saw an increase during the Victorian period, when decorated cards began to be mass produced and postage became more affordable.
Today, these notes are still typically sent to romantic partners, rather than to friends or other people we care about. But when Saint Valentine sent his final letter, signing off “your Valentine,” it wasn’t to the person he was in love with but to the girl he cared for–the friend he healed from her blindness through his communion with God. The recipients of Valentine’s love were his friends, the fellow faithful he cared for in his community, and God. His love of God drove him to act, both in the healing of the judge’s daughter and in his continued preaching of Christ despite the ban on Christianity and the threats to his own life. Valentine extended platonic love to even those the most antagonistic towards him, including the family member of one of his oppressors.
So, what is the Valentine’s Day that we’re really celebrating? Yes, it’s still a holiday to care for our significant others and the person we’re in love with, but it’s not only for that. It’s also time to care for those who care for us (and, perhaps more divinely, for those who don’t), to share our love for God and God’s love for us, and to send our love and appreciation to friends, family, and acquaintances.
For those who only see Valentine’s Day as an overblown holiday for romantic couples or a marketing scheme to bolster candy sales, the question isn’t how to reject the holiday entirely, but rather how to make the holiday more heartfelt and personally meaningful. Is it time to stop celebrating Valentine’s Day as a particular day of appreciation for romantic partners? No, but it is time to expand the circle of our appreciation to our friends, family, those in our community, and to God.
This post was written by LeeAnn Broderick, a Humanities Center undergraduate fellow.
 “St. Valentine,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Valentine.
Livia Gershon, “Who Was the Real St. Valentine? The Many Myths Behind the Inspiration for Valentine’s Day,” History.com (A&E Television Networks, January 9, 2019), https://www.history.com/news/real-st-valentine-medieval?li_source=LI&li_medium=m2m-rcw-history.
“Valentine Cards Reveal Britain’s Relationship History,” Manchester Metropolitan University, https://web.archive.org/web/20160415135805/http://www.mmu.ac.uk/news/news-items/1218/.