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Valentine’s Day May Mean More to Retailers Than Lovers

February 9, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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NANCY GIBBS, Time magazine: Some holidays know who they are. Thanksgiving is about giving thanks; Independence Day celebrates freedom. But other holidays contradict themselves, and none more than Valentine’s Day, which has about as much to do with love as the Easter Bunny has with resurrection.

For one thing, it’s named after a martyr, which isn’t a very promising start for a holiday meant to celebrate passion, not punishment.

In olden days, a typical observance involved bachelors pulling maiden’s names out of an urn like a raffle. Nowadays, Valentine’s Day is a favorite of 8-year-olds who come home from school with more candy than on any day other than Halloween, though this, too, seems a little odd for a holiday that shimmies into view in a pink feather boa and high heels.

Children alone can’t account for the fact that a billion cards are sent every year — second only to Christmas — and 85 percent of them by women. For this, we can thank Esther Howland, a 1847 Mount Holyoke grad whose father owned a stationery store and who came up with the idea of mass-producing Valentines. The mother of the Valentine never married, but she did get very rich.

I’m suspicious of any holiday in which the greeting card business and the diamond cartel conspire. Greeting cards have their place — congratulations on the new baby, joy and peace in 2009 — but surely love should sing harmonies only you can hear, not the tinny pipe organ of the Hallmark serenade.

As for the diamonds, I like them as much as the next girl, but especially in this economy it would be nice for love to be associated with something warm and soft and accessible, not cold, hard and exorbitant.

My main frustration is that Valentine’s Day only pretends to celebrate what we like about love while more often undermining it. Love is hope and madness and generosity; it asks for nothing in return. Valentine’s Day easily evokes dread and duty and devotion put through a metal detector.

A million Web sites instruct men on what to give, lest they send the wrong signal or are reduced to relying on drugstore chocolates. Restaurants cue the violins and raise their prices. You can find matching Snoopy Valentine towels on eBay, not to mention naked Cupid refrigerator magnets.

There’s nothing wrong with reveling in romance, and honoring friendship, and pausing in the bleak midwinter to tickle the people we love, but it’s also a good sign of the state of your relationships if the day just saunters by and winks and you feel no need to pay much attention.

Love should fizz without champagne, should grow even in hard soil. The minute its expression feels like a duty, it has lost its bearings. “Love sought is good,” Shakespeare observed, “but given unsought is better.”

I’m Nancy Gibbs.