Anyone who’s spent Valentine’s Day cooped up in a couple-centric restaurant will know well that unique, low-grade brand of misery that comes from a feeling that is forced. When Shakespeare wrote sonnet 18 (Shall I Compare Thee To a Summer’s Day?) back in 1609, it’s unlikely he did so with a tear and share board of baked camembert in mind.
Somewhere between the Jacobean era and now – and despite the very best efforts of Celine Dion et al – we’ve somehow lost that vital thread of romance, in the broadest sense of the term. As much as we think of it at all, “Valentine’s” today is synonymous with overpriced tat, imported bouquets, and a growing sense of pressure from people who are a.) left out, b.) bickering, or c.) more smashed than an autumnal pumpkin.
I’ve spent Valentine’s in all three states; most memorably by getting horrifically drunk on homemade caipirinhas (never try this) and growling at my then-boyfriend to “put a ring on it” (needless to say, he was blown away by my charms).
Yet, despite this somewhat rocky history, I’ve never thought of Valentine’s as a waste of time and air space. Sure, it’s become contrived and commercially muddied. But the bigger issue is, we load it with way too much baggage.
If you’re in a relationship, Valentine’s can make you feel like you’re the only couple not getting on at a wedding. Everyone else is lost in this feel-good haze, and there you are, riding on a cloud of barely-concealed tension. It’s not Valentine’s fault, it’s just that the more you expect your relationship to “perform” for a special occasion, the less it actually will do. It’s a simple rule of physics.
And if you’re single, well, the whole thing can just feel isolating and a bit silly. Like it somehow singles you out for being alone, even when you’ve been happy with that every other day of the year. The thing is, Valentine’s doesn’t have to be a pay-off between a half-price pack of Dairy Milk, a claustrophobic meal or feeling mildly pissed off. We could reframe it completely.
Leslie Knope had the right idea with her now-legendary “Galentine’s Day” on the TV show Parks and Recreation. True to form, Leslie drew the “awesome ladies” of Pawnee together for a romantic meal on the run-up to Valentine’s, so they could spread the love between them. Yet, true romance could stretch still further.
Valentine’s is an excuse to shower any and all people you love with romance – and that means everyone you share your life with, not just those who share your bed. Romance in this context is not just hearts and flowers (although these are great) but any kind of act of chivalry. It means opening doors, writing letters, showing gratitude: letting people you care about know that they are loved.
Ever since we were little, my mum sent me and my six siblings Valentine’s Day cards and gifts. We always shared a Valentine’s meal together with hyacinths, hand-written notes, heart-shaped chocolates: anything for a broad nod to love. Even now, as grown-ups, my mum continues with the tradition – signing “guess who?” in her inimitable handwriting, and ensuring she’s papered the gaps if we’re not in a relationship, or on the off-chance our partners have dropped the ball.
I’ve carried on the tradition in my own way, too: I always send Valentine’s packages to my Aunty Mary, for example, who at 94, certainly deserves all the love she can get. I do the same for any friend or loved one who I think has needed a pick-me-up over the years – because who doesn’t love a surprise Valentine’s?
This Valentine’s, my Mum would have been alone for the first time in 55 years – so instead, she’s joining my husband and I, along with one of my sisters, as we all cook a meal together. We’ll do the whole gifts and flowers thing, too. This doesn’t ruin the vibe, it makes it.
If you’re feeling any kind of pressure this Valentine’s, I would say do the same. Expand your gathering, or create a new one. Spread the love. Let the people around you know how much they matter. Whether that feeling is platonic or more carnal, it really doesn’t matter.
Love is a lifeblood: it picks us up, and helps get us through grief or trauma; it’s like a warm cocoon on a rainy February night. The pandemic has shown us how much we need love of all kinds and the people who come with it – the more the merrier. Valentine’s is a chance to celebrate that feeling, in all its many guises. Because – and I’m sorry to invoke Richard Curtis here but perhaps it’s inevitable – if you look for it, love actually *is* all around.