Why Is Valentine’s Day a Big Deal?

A look at the origins and symbolism of the celebration of love on February 14

Question: So what’s up with Valentine’s Day? I’ve been dating my girlfriend for two years, and she wants me to go all out with gifts and an expensive night out, but it feels phony. Wouldn’t a box of chocolates be okay? I never knew what to do on Valentine’s Day — even when we first started dating. What does the Church say about Valentine’s Day, and why does it matter?

I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Valentine’s Day either. I love romance as much as the next girl, but if you are married or dating, it can feel like a Hallmark holiday. When I was single, it felt like a reminder that I was not in a couple, even if other days I was totally OK with my status. But before we dismiss it entirely, we should understand what Valentine’s Day is meant to symbolize.

The history of Saint Valentine is murky, at best. There are at least three different legends of a man named Valentine, which honor acts defending Christians against Roman persecution and, to a lesser degree, the virtue of romantic love. One of the Valentines was likely martyred. Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day around 500 A.D., possibly as a way to “Christianize” a pagan fertility festival. The Roman Catholic Church dropped St. Valentine from the calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feasts in 1969, likely due to the unclear origins of the holiday.

The spirit of Valentine’s Day is much more clear. In American culture, it is a day meant to honor romantic love and has expanded to include friendships and close family. But what are we talking about when we say “love?” Is it simply a feeling of affection? And how do we “honor” love?

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Feeling “in love” is where we start our journey, but it doesn’t touch the deeper meaning of loving someone “in word and deed.” Love is being able to express yourself, saying what you feel or need, within a safe and trusting environment. Love is being able to disagree without feeling shame and maintaining a sense of togetherness in times of both intimacy and autonomy. Love is real, authentic, and reciprocal. Love respects boundaries, emotional and physical. Love offers encouragement, support, and acceptance while standing up for what is good and moral. Love is willing to sacrifice for the good of the couple or for the higher good of faith.

Love is not demanding or forced affection. It is not smothering or controlling, disrespectful or dishonest. Love is given freely. It is open to life and bears spiritual fruit in the lives of the lovers. And clearly, love is faithful, in every sense of the word.

So, what should we do on Valentine’s Day? You can focus on celebrating the virtues of love, in any relationship you choose to honor that day. If you want to be authentic, then you can talk about your dilemma with your girlfriend. If you want to foster a sense of support and acceptance, then ask her what is most important about the celebration, and then try to honor what it means to her. If you’d like to foster a spirit of affection, then plan a date or a gift within your budget that recognizes the uniqueness of your partner.

Valentine’s Day and healthy relationships are not about being forced to show your affection. If you are coerced into an expensive gift or date night, then likely your relationship is struggling with acceptance and support. It may be your girlfriend is craving some assurance of how you feel about her or your commitment to the relationship. Grand gestures will not be able to replace emotional intimacy if the security of your bond is in question. If Valentine’s Day becomes an argument, then you likely have deeper conflicts to examine.

What would the Church say about Valentine’s Day? The message of the Church is more focused on the meaning of love as taught by our Creator. John Paul II tells us that as the author of love, “God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion.” We know we are called to love one another, the part we don’t tend to think about is the responsibility it brings. If you are choosing to be with your girlfriend, then you are called to take care of her heart. Only you know the best way to do that, and I would imagine it comes down to more than a box of chocolates. I sense you may be feeling resentful toward her, so it may be time to have a conversation with yourself and find out why.

I think the best way to celebrate Valentine’s Day is to make it an expression of your heart. It may mean gifts or a special evening out or simply time together. Remembering the people in our lives that showed us how to love is a good way to increase our sense of gratitude. But no matter what you do for Valentine’s Day, make sure you are taking care of what is really important: the unique person of your girlfriend and the deeper meaning and purpose of your relationship.