Valentine’s Day Misobserved

Valentine’s Day is poorly kept by those who ignore it openly and by those who observe it privately. This past Thursday it came and went and there was no public ceremony accompanying it, which strikes me as strange. Most holidays involve families, religious communities, and countries, but contemporary Valentine’s Day is usually only celebrated by two individuals together, privately. It’s a private holiday, which runs against an essential feature of holidays- their public observance.

So I don’t blame singles who feel apathy towards the holiday. It’s become a holiday about private love among adults (its observance among schoolchildren is different). It’s not always secret love, but Valentine’s Day romances have more akin to Romeo and Juliet’s than Prince William and Kate Middleton’s. Many people think that the day is only about couples appreciating each other, and that any public ostentation is just a symbol to your lover of how proud you are of your relationship. So if Valentine’s Day is about private love, it excludes participation by the rest of the community. I want to make a case for a new observance of Valentine’s Day, which even singles should be excited about.

The private nature of the holiday is problematic for any number of reasons, but mostly it misses what Valentine’s Day could be about: courteous love. Courteous love is most prominently represented in art. To discover what courteous love means, consider the ballet Sleeping Beauty. Love is not just affection between Aurora and her prince, but an event in which her whole community takes part. Her father and mother preside over the court, the onlookers approve the lovers through their acclamation, and all the other young couples liken their own romances to Aurora’s. Courteous love is a culture of men and women coming together in rituals of modest affection, which the community also participates in. Courteous love consists of events with partner and group dances, public recitations of romantic poetry, and plays and musical performances with romantic themes. Any activity which publicly and chastely expressed love through a ritual would count as courteous love.

Generally, courteous love gets short shrift in our culture today, which is unfortunate because it’s so integral to culture’s existence. Courteous love is deeply communal. The most important aspects of a romance occur in public events and ceremonies rather than private trysts. For example, courteous love is best shown in wedding ceremonies. Weddings affirm the union of the sexes and acclaim the joy of marriage for the spouses and for the community. In this way, a marriage is not only a private contract but also a public celebration. Courteous love is an affirmation of the principle of a community: that there is some public good above each individual’s own personal goals. Courteous love portrays community as being joyful for its own sake rather than a useful tool for personal aims. It affirms the union of the sexes and acclaims the joy of marriage for the spouses and for the community. Courteous love inspires onlookers with its fulfilling depiction of selflessness and shows how care ennobles the lover.

People are skeptical of courteous love, not because it’s unrealizable in our culture, but because it’s unappealing to our sensibilities. Courteous love is tied to public performance, which can appear hollow. People wonder, “Are they really in love or just going through the motions?” Certainly, there is ritual in a courteous love culture, but plenty of lovers go through the motions in our private love culture. Instead of deceiving the public, these private lovers deceive themselves.

Moreover, ritual is meaning-affirming, and public ritual is even more meaning-affirming. A public wedding generally means more than a private wedding attended only by the spouses, which in turn means more than being married in common law. Rituals make more lasting memories and give social significance to our actions and relationships.

Rituals do more than convey the meaning and significance of their love to the lovers (“how do we know this love is real and matters?”) but they also teach them the actions of love (“how do we love?”). We can recognize the value of romantic love by performing loving actions in other types of relationships. For example, if you give a homeless person money every time you see her, then you may find yourself loving her eventually. Practicing acts of kindness toward parents and children, neighbors, and friends also fosters love. Similarly, the romantic lovers practice courteous love through repeated ritual.

I don’t mean to suggest that romance is the only important type of relationship in a community. There needs to be love between parents and children, neighbors, and friends. If a society lacked a healthy friendship culture, a flourishing culture of courteous love would be irrelevant because that society would already be dysfunctional. Yet, a romance culture must flourish for a community to be cohesive, and a romance culture really flourishes when it has the support of the community, when singles and couples form a cohesive culture.

Courteous love is fulfilling for the lovers, but more distinctively it allows the community (singles included) to participate and confirm their love. It draws lovers closer by including the community, while binding the community tighter with the bonds of romantic love.