Two years ago, The Daily Targum of Rutgers University published an article titled “Don’t be fooled: Valentine’s Day is just another capitalistic money-making scheme.” Here, Meredith MacLean’s prose is fiery and forceful; she dubs the holiday “a capitalist hellscape” and “a consumerist hot mess.”
MacLean is far from alone in her criticism of the 14th. Disapproval for the holiday has proliferated rapidly over the past few years, particularly on social media sites such as Twitter and Tumblr. As the world continues to move into the hands of a new generation, Valentine’s Day has lost much of the romantic, kisses-behind-the-bleacher appeal it once held.
And it is not too hard to see why. The holiday, in the eyes of many, has become twisted into nigh-unrecognizability. Rather than expressing genuine sentiments of platonic and romantic love, many of us have taken to filling our shopping carts with heart-shaped candy and carefully pruned roses and, perhaps most ironically, “I love you” cards. As a result, many people now see the 14th as a bastion of rampant consumerism, with no deeper emotional, historical, or cultural significance.
The criticism facing Valentine’s Day is also an environmental one. Many of the holiday’s traditions are detrimental to the natural world: tens of thousands of metric tons of carbon dioxide are emitted through the production of roses, candy, and other temporary goods. Entire forests, grasslands, and meadows—many of which house myriad endangered species—are burnt down in our pursuit of the bitter richness of chocolate. Not to mention the millions of tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean, all to satiate our desire for pretty plastic trinkets.
Valentine’s Day, like many of the other heritages we celebrate in our culture, is a lie we love to tell ourselves. Valentine’s Day propagates the lie of materialism; that tangible monetary value is the only way to express true appreciation for others; that the capitalist machine deserves our every attention and sacrifice, even as that machine is consuming the world around us; that all our kindness and words and warm gestures are outweighed by the forte of a dollar bill.
But, again, this is a lie. A farce. Behind the glimmering façade of cash, there is a more tender truth at play: Valentine’s Day celebrates love. And love, perhaps in purest form, is about giving to others.
Despite the ways in which the holiday has been transformed, the 14th is very much still a day centered and shaped by a recognition of the people around us. In elementary school, many of us partook in the tradition of exchanging cards between classmates. As we grow older, Valentine’s Day has taught us to express grace, to take time and make memories with the people we care about most. For those who have experienced the associated flowers and chocolate so many times before, the 14th has become a time to reminisce about the people, places, and events we used to love.
This is not discounting the numerous problems that plague the holiday. Many of the ways in which we go about giving to others have been corrupted by consumerist ideals; we have again deceived ourselves into the belief that the store-bought object is the foremost expression of affection.
For all the corruption of the action, the intention behind it is generally pure: each act of consumerism is based on a genuine desire to bring joy to the people around us. Valentine’s Day reminds us that the human is a social creature, not a singular one. In a culture so focused on personal accomplishment, this celebration of active engagement—to not only act but act for the people beyond ourselves—has become almost extinct.
So as we work to change how we celebrate February 14, as we develop new eco-friendly and personalized ways to celebrate, we should take the time to appreciate the wholly unique opportunity Valentine’s Day offers us.