A couple of evenings ago, as my daughters and I decorated dozens of heart-shaped butter cookies, the 12- and 15-year-olds informed me that Valentine’s Day is one of their favorite holidays.
“It’s all about LOVE!” they said, indignant that I dared to ask why they liked it so much. “And it’s the only holiday that happens on a school day, when we can be with our friends.”
This morning there was extra excitement and drama in the air as they added Valentine touches to their freshly painted fingernails and wrapped up cookies to take to friends and teachers. Let’s just say there was a lot of pink going on. I observed the scene with some fascination, vaguely beginning to remember when Valentine’s Day meant more to me, too.
Now, of course, it isn’t cool to make much of the “Hallmark holiday.” It’s been two decades since I secretly hoped for flowers on the 14th, and although Jason and I did make a bit of a deal celebrating our first Valentine’s Day together (it was 2006, and we had only been officially dating for about a month), we haven’t made a habit of it. We’d rather spend the money going out for a nice dinner on an “off” night, without all the hoopla and the crowds—the awkward aura of couples trying too hard to conjure up extra meaning out of an ordinary day.
This year Jason is out of town for Valentine’s Day, which of course doesn’t matter since we don’t really do anything to celebrate anyway. Right?
Well, sort of.
To be honest, there’s a part of me that’s feeling a tiny bit sorry for the woman whose love is off in New York spending Valentine’s Day with clients. I’ve been feeling those twinges of self pity all week, and I’m not a fan of self pity. I am, however, a fan of how I’ve responded to the twinges: Rather than swatting them away, trying to pretend that February 14 has no broad, cultural significance, I’ve embraced Valentine’s Day more than ever, thinking up ways to celebrate the love I feel for a variety of people in my life who aren’t my husband. It was an excuse to invite a friend to dinner, to make plans to have lunch with someone I haven’t caught up with in months, to have a phone date with a dear friend who lives in another state, and to write a couple of emails to people I’ve been thinking about. All of those connections this week brought me (and hopefully them, too) a lot of joy.
Just as I was really getting into the spirit of spreading all this love, a small collection of Facebook and Twitter statuses almost ruined it for me. Some were just the typical, hipster, anti-Hallmark-holiday sentiments that I’ve heard variations of for many years, but others had more bite. Yesterday, which was Ash Wednesday, I saw a Tweet from someone who wondered how many Christians were spending more time thinking about Valentine’s Day than Ash Wednesday. I felt a stab of guilt—obviously we had made Valentine’s cookies, not Ash Wednesday cookies (whatever those might be), and I had mailed a Valentine’s Day card to my grandmother, not a “Happy Lent” card.
But then I felt myself growing angry (the way I often do shortly after feeling guilty about something I shouldn’t feel guilty about). Lent is personal, while Valentine’s Day is communal. Lent calls us to turn inward, while Valentine’s Day is about turning outward. Both days are capable of inspiring deep, powerful meaning, just as they are capable of prompting shallow, empty, rote behaviors.
Most importantly, God is not asking me to weigh my Ash Wednesday observances against my Valentine’s Day observances. God is calling me to love, and love is a very complex thing, fed as much by a season of inner examination as by outward practices of caring for others.
In fact, when I look at my week as a whole, it seems completely fitting that it was a week that held both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. For me, it has been a week of brokenness, loneliness and tears, as well as a week of connection, understanding, and time devoted to people I love. It’s been a week of cookie cutters and frosting, of a messy kitchen and laughter around the table. I have felt the heaviness of a worried Mama’s heart balanced by the lightness that comes from conversations that make you feel heard and loved.
In other words, it was a week of brokenness and love. Call the holidays what you will—arbitrary, symbolic, sacred, silly, whatever. They are just days on a calendar, waiting for us to animate them with meaning through how we choose to live our lives.