February 14th has become very far estranged from its religious roots.
Valentine’s Day stems from, at heart, troubling persecution; the Roman Empire executed St Valentine for ministering to Christians, an oppressed minority. We owe the intertwining of this showing of martyrdom and romantic love to Chaucer. He pulled the two strings taut in a fleshy Gordian knot in the Parliament of Foules, a 14th Century dream poem that would come to inform an entire day’s festivities. Chaucer’s vision of primal pairing underwent a few hundred years of cultural polishing and emerged, proudly sophisticated, in the 18th Century tradition of exchanging hand-written Valentine’s.
In 1797 that changed. The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was among pamphlets released to serve gentlemen who’s marked lack of poetic fluency was matched only by their romantic aspiration. Commercial Valentine’s Day arrived. Now, St Valentine still lends his name to the day, but not much else. The Anglo-American conception of romantic love has become overpowering. Love has been commercialised, conventionalised, and less is reminiscent of fragrant French roses than it is of sweetly saccharine bottled perfumes.
Modern Valentine’s Day
In 2010 The U.S. greeting card association reported three facts: Americans sent 15 million online e- Valentine’s; the most popular recipients were teachers, and most Valentine exchanges were intra-familial. Valentine’s Day, it seems, has lost both its way and its romantic edge. But that may not be such a bad thing.
In recent years, the notion of Valentine’s Day has become increasingly unpalatable to our culture. I have already said that the day is based on convention, which is necessarily exclusive. It is an uncomfortable paradox that the day that centres on the commemoration of sacrifice in the face of persecution performs a codified propagation of norms. Socially codified behaviour precludes the participation of those who cannot obey it; public displays of affection are impossible for non-straight couples to perform in many areas of the world; Valentine’s Day both assumes and positions heterosexuality as not only the norm but, arguably, love’s apex condition. Valentine’s Day conveniently forgets society’s margins.
Valentine’s Day in Cambridge
I am preaching to the choir: Cambridge is one of the most accepting cities in the UK. From the 12th of February, you can go see Angels in America, an award-winning exploration of the AIDS epidemic. On Valentine’s Day itself, WomCam is collaborating with Playtime, a feminist DJ collective, to host an anti-heteronormativity party. The University is coordinating Bridging Binaries: Pilot LGBT Tours in all its major museums.
But we don’t spend our whole lives in Cambridge. Every term I make the flight over from Northern Ireland, where gay marriage is still not legal. Here, the students of the University organise open mics for charities and club nights for progressive events. At home, 20% of young LGBT people are victims of hate crimes, and 64% don’t report it to the police. It was not so long ago that the Reverend Ian Paisley based his campaign on the charming precept to ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’. Only ten years ago Iris Robinson called homosexuality an ‘abomination’.
I admit the tides are changing. Encouragingly, 76% of Northern Irish people support gay marriage. Less encouragingly, they are still being held prisoner by the DUP and their reactive abuse of the petition of concern. My transition from home to uni feels as disorientating as being tossed on the crest of a wave. The tides’ ‘changing’ is of limited consolation.
A Modern Valentine’s Day
It is productive to examine who is included and excluded by festivities, not least because marginalised groups, currently silenced, have so much to express. Roxane Gay, for example, writes eloquently on the experience of being black, queer, and overweight.
Convention operates on inclusion and exclusion. It is in all our interest to strive to make Valentine’s Day more inclusive, less conventional, and more personal. That the personal is more intimate is a happy concordance with Valentine’s Day’s romantic aims.