It is very easy to be cynical about Valentine’s Day. Restaurants are full of sickeningly cute couples and wherever you turn you are faced with gift ideas for that ‘special someone’. If you are not one of the chosen few in a relationship on 14th February, you are probably sat at home with a bottle of wine and the Bridget Jones trilogy, committing yourself to eternal spinsterhood. You will predictably post something on Twitter about how Valentine’s Day is just a capitalist scam to make us buy overpriced roses and chocolates. And then 15th February dawns. The dreaded day is over. We can return to our lives and forget about the horror of the night before. But is there really anything that terrible about a day dedicated to love?
There is surprisingly little known about the life of Saint Valentine. The Catholic Church officially recognises at least two saints called Valentine, one of which was a priest under the reign of Claudius II. In the third century AD, Claudius had decreed that young men could not marry because they would make better soldiers without wives and families. Valentine secretly performed marriage ceremonies for these men and was consequentially put to death for disobeying the emperor. The myths vary but most agree that St Valentine, whoever he was, was driven by compassion and love. St Valentine has become a symbol of the triumph of love and its power to overcome all obstacles.
It almost seems ridiculous that love should be a contentious issue in 2017. But even in the mainstream world we see love being challenged and diminished. Trump’s appointment of John Gore to lead the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Justice could be catastrophic for LGBT+ rights. Gore has a history of defending the HB2 lawsuit in North Carolina and famously argues that religious freedom should be able to be used as an excuse to discriminate against gay people. In Russia, the Moscow Pride march was banned in 2012 for 100 years. ‘Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ was banned in 2013. The freedom to express love, in all its forms, is being taken away from people around the world. In five countries, being gay is still punishable by death. The recently introduced ‘Turing Law’ in the UK pardons those unjustly convicted of sexual offences. The pardon strives to right the wrongs of past governments, but the hurt caused can never be undone. Whilst homosexuality is no longer an offence under British law, the stigmatisation of the LGBT+ community still remains. According the The Gay British Crime Survey (2013), one in six lesbian, gay, and bi people have experienced a homophobic or biphobic hate crime in the past three years. Love is constantly being challenged in today’s society.
The Roman Saint Valentine is famous for marrying Christians for love and yet even today people are forced into marriages devoid of love. Child and forced marriages are still an undeniable problem facing the world. Shockingly, over 50% of the marriages in the world are arranged. According to the Home Office, the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit gave advice to 1267 cases in 2014 alone. A festival celebrating a third-century saint who advocated marriage for love’s sake is not only relevant in 2017 but necessary.
In an increasingly hateful and divided world, love and compassion should not be overlooked. Post-Brexit Britain is a place where hate crimes are on the rise and the gaps between groups in society are growing. Although an originally Christian tradition, we can see that the celebration of St Valentine has a place within the secular lives of people today. Love trumps hate. We should use Valentine’s Day to celebrate love in all its forms.
Photograph: Xavier Decoopman via Flickr