Valentine’s Day has a set of expectations and traditions compiled throughout the centuries. Today, however, it’s a largely commercialized event notorious for its avalanche of food, flowers and all things heart-shaped.
Yet amid the hand-holding, gift-giving, movie-watching and dessert-indulging, discussion about the significance of the holiday spurs a range of responses. Georgetown students and alumni, each at different stages their lives, bring something novel to Valentine’s Day each year.
Feb. 14 provides time to appreciate love in all its guises, but for Hoyas, the small acts of romance themselves are adopting new forms. From heterosexual students to couples in the LGBTQ community, this past Valentine’s Day held significance to relationships across the spectrum.
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Although celebrated by millions, the origins of the holiday remain obscure. Its history is primarily composed of vague rumors, to the point where even the identity of St. Valentine himself remains in dispute. So how did Valentine’s Day transform into the modern celebration of romance?
According to the Catholic Church, there are at least three different saints named Valentine, all of whom were said to have been martyred on Feb. 14. The first was a Roman priest, the second a bishop of Terni, I and all that is known of the third is that he spent time in Africa with several companions. Besides this skeletal knowledge, little else has been uncovered about these three saints.
Valentine’s Day can be seen as an age-old tradition honoring the lives of one of these three saints. But for some, the connection between the saint and the date has other causes. Historians argue that St. Valentine’s official feast day was coordinated in 496 AD by Pope Gelasius to coincide with the Roman celebration of the Lupercalia. The Lupercalia was a pagan fertility festival, usually held from Feb. 13 to 15, dedicated to the god of agriculture, and under Pope Gelasius there was a major push to Christianize the holiday.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, it was also commonly believed that Feb. 14 marked the beginning of the mating season for birds. Over time this belief was combined with the tradition of St. Valentine’s feast day, producing symbols of love and romance in its wake.
The oldest known valentine is a 15th-century poem composed by Charles, Duke of Orleans, for his wife. He romantically wrote the valentine while being held captive in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. During the next several hundred years, Valentine’s Day gradually become a holiday centered on similar tokens of affection, the primary romantic gesture taking on the form of the paper valentine. As paper distribution and printing technology continued to improved, this fad only increased in popularity.
Fast forward to the 1840s, when the very first American Valentine’s Day greeting cards were created by Esther Howland, also known as the Mother of the Valentine. Howland started her own business to manufacture these popular tokens of affection. But it was not until 1910 that our modern-day Hallmark greeting card company began its humble beginnings under the leadership of an 18-year-old named J.C. Hall. After that, the greeting cards industry rapidly expanded.
Today, more than 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged in the United States every year, making it the second most popular card-giving holiday behind Christmas. It has expanded to become a highly commercialized event, touting expensive dates, chocolates, jewelry, stuffed animals and endless trinkets to commemorate that priceless gift of love. But the holiday is not done changing yet — even now, young couples are continuing to adapt to longstanding traditions with new expressions of romance fit for their particular relationship.
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Georgetown is where many students seek to find romance, but with a generally expensive and time-consuming holiday like Valentine’s Day, Hoyas are confronted with consumerist expectations that they cannot, or simply do not want to, meet. Instead, couples on the Hilltop are coming to peace with a hybridized version of Valentine’s Day that is straying further and further from the ideal scenario encouraged by the media.
When “defining the relationship” is often a taboo conversation and “putting a label on it” is seen as a serious and risky commitment, students are fighting back to reclaim a holiday taken over by superficial romantic stereotypes.
“Everyone faces awkward pressure on Valentine’s Day. I think the point of the holiday is to either force you to try to impress someone if you’re in a relationship or to remind you that you’re not in one,” Andrew Sullivan (COL ’17) said. “People not in relationships face just as much pressure as the people trying to impress their girlfriend or boyfriend, but Valentine’s Day is a celebration of any relationship — it doesn’t have to be a romantic or traditional one.”
“Love is not exclusive to a romantic relationship — it can be between good people. [Valentine’s Day is] a time to figure out where you are romantically and just in terms of other friendships you have,” Fang said. “I know a lot of people just go out and party a lot, because they just want to kind of drink away their sorrows, but I think there are more productive and happier ways to spend [the day].”
Both Sullivan and Fang are in exclusive, monogamous relationships, yet they see the downside of blowing the holiday out of proportion.
“It’s nice being in a relationship on Valentine’s Day, but I don’t think you need the day itself to make it special,” Fang said. “I was very happy just being around [my girlfriend], but it wasn’t anything remarkably different from any other day when I’m around her. It’s the people that matter, not the holiday.”
Yet even though Valentine’s Day is consistently criticized as an overly commercialized event, this side of the holiday can have its own redeeming qualities.
Celeste Chisholm (COL ’15) credited the expensive dinners and consumer products with adding their own value to the holiday.
“It’s always fun to buy things for people. It’s always strangely fun to spend, spend, spend for somebody that you think will appreciate it,” Chisholm said. “The flowers [I bought my girlfriend] were priced exorbitantly. I was disappointed about that — I bought the cheapest one, but it was still really expensive, but she loves them. They make her smile every time she walks into the room.”
While Chisholm acknowledged that Valentine’s Day may not be the cheapest of holidays, its consumerist quality in no way lessened the importance of her romantic gestures. She said, “In some ways it is an immunity to commercialism. People think it’s a day of commercialism, a day to embrace commercialism. But actually, it’s a day when you ignore it. Commercialism is always attached to a price, and usually you can only be as commercial as your wallet allows. That day, we did what we wanted.”
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For Georgetown couples, Valentine’s Day has been reworked to fit the mayhem of college schedules and the restrictions of personal budgets. Breaking from the pressure of the traditional dating mold, some students choose to spend the day in rather than hit the town.
“About two weeks before Valentine’s Day I told her that we weren’t going out to dinner on Valentine’s Day,” Sullivan said of his plans with his girlfriend of five months, Claire Reardon (SFS ’17). “I said we could go out to dinner any day the week before, or the week after, but not that day. It was a combination of anti-consumerism and trying to not spend all my money. So then she said that her parents could drop off a fondue pot and we could make fondue.”
Sullivan and Reardon met freshman year while living in Village C West, but they did not start dating until this past fall.
“This was [our] first Valentine’s Day having a significant other. We’re both not super into it because it’s just a very commercial holiday and there’s so much pressure to either impress your significant other or pressure to find someone to do something with,” Reardon said. “I wasn’t expecting any presents or anything like that. We just stayed in and cooked together and played ‘Wii Sports.’ We made fondue, so we did all three courses. We did cheese, hot broth and then we did chocolate. We thought that it would be so much cheaper than going out to dinner, but we really went out to town buying expensive cheeses, so it ended up being kind of expensive anyway. I was in my pajamas the whole time.”
Fang has been in a monogamous relationship with Kathleen Reilly (SFS ’17) for two months now. Although the relationship is relatively new, like Sullivan and Reardon, he felt no need to conform to holiday expectations.
“This was the first time I’ve been in a relationship on Valentine’s Day. I knew there was supposed to be dinner or something, but I unfortunately did not know that I had to make reservations like a month before,” Fang said. “Thank God [my girlfriend] decided she wanted to order in, so we did that. We just wanted to do some alone stuff — we cooked together, made some desert, and watched several episodes of ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ It was a cuddly, warm, cozy night. We ordered Chinese food and then we made fried Oreos.”
Georgetown students do not always have the time and money to make public statements of love every Valentine’s Day. Instead, young couples are OK with downplaying the elaborate holiday and making shared moments more casual, albeit no less meaningful.
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Peeling back the conventional layers of a typical Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for many students, but for others, the holiday comes with much more profound implications. Heteronormative traditions of romance currently dominate the scene, and the commercial world promotes seemingly simple practices such as a male treating the woman to dinner, a date and endless gifts, and a female showing her appreciation by donning red and pink and accepting her role as the gift recipient.
Yet once Valentine’s Day arrives, members of the LGBTQ community are especially sensitive to the way in which these gender roles actually play out. Over time, these non-traditional couples have found their own ways to reclaim a traditionally heteronormative holiday and make it their own.
Chisholm has served multiple semesters as the GU Pride transgender representative, a position that she initially helped to create. She has been in a monogamous relationship with her girlfriend Celine — a Georgetown student whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity, as her sexual orientation is not public — for approximately one month. Chisholm identifies herself as a transgender student, and Celine is a cisgender student.
This year, Valentine’s Day offered the new couple a chance to wade into waters it had avoided up to that point.
“We got dressed and decided to go get coffee at Saxby’s. Even though both of us were passable straight women, we decided to be shameless about holding hands. [Later] we went out for dinner,” Chisholm said. “Our reservation was at nine o’ clock at Me Jana. It was this Lebanese cuisine place in who-knows-where, and that was a little sketchy, but the place was really nice.
When we got there we were holding hands totally shamelessly in the lobby, and everyone was looking at our hands.”
For Chisholm, hand-holding held an extra level of meaning that went beyond the ordinary romantic gesture.
“We hold hands when we’re off campus. We hold hands at night, on M Street, and in most other places,” Chisholm said. “But on [campus], even for me, such a high-profile GU Pride character, I think I would just be getting a little too much attention. And I think most couples feel that way; it’s not exclusive to this kind of couple. But Valentine’s Day is about her and me, celebrating us. I just didn’t want to care; I wanted to be in my own little bubble.”
These declarations of love have changed the way that LGBTQ couples perceive the holiday. For Chisholm and Celine, their gender-conscious behavior on Valentine’s Day added to the significance that their interactions with each other held.
While Celine was inside Saxby’s ordering coffee, Chisholm went across the street to the flower store to pick up six roses she had ordered three days in advance.
“I went into the flower shop and I was on top of it; I knew what I was doing. You’d think guys would know how to do that. But there were three guys in front of me in line, and they looked lost,” Chisholm said. “There was one guy looking at tulips like, ‘Are these roses?’ I think it’s funny because guys are thrust into this role — they really don’t know what they’re doing. I certainly don’t mind doing things like that because to me, gender is a little added bonus. It’s not something that I feel is a stringent or strict law that I have to abide by. It’s all a construction to me. When you transit from one gender to another, you see how much of it is actually voluntary, and how much you think is actually decided for you. For instance, who pays for the meal, who pays the check?”
This attitude carried over to their dinner at Me Jana, where Celine ended up paying for the meal.
“I really don’t like going Dutch — I figure that it’s all going to even out anyway,” Chisholm said.
“Paying Dutch is so surgical, saying we have to cut this right down the middle because it’s the only thing that’s fair and fairness is important. What’s important for a couple is that you take care of each other and that you do things for each other. I’ll pay for her for a meal, then she’ll pay for me.”
Chisholm and Celine are not alone in defying the heteronormative Valentine’s Day. Alex Kaplan (COL ’01) lives in Dupont Circle with his husband Olivier Basdevant and their infant daughter.
Kaplan has been with Basdevant for over 11 years, and they have been married for five; they adopted their daughter last year in April. In their relationship, stereotypical gender distinctions have been blurred into nonexistence.
“My relationship with Olivier is so balanced; gender roles are just completely out. We just have no roles — we do everything together for each other. We step in with the baby, for example. We both change diapers, we both soothe, we both feed, we both play. For heteronormative couples I think that’s not usually the case,” Kaplan said. “On Valentine’s Day it’s the same thing: I bought him a card this year because he’d just been away for three weeks, he brought back beautiful gifts from another part of a world and I bought him those strawberries. What one does for another we both do for each other.”
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Although it is widely held that the days of chivalry and courtship are long gone, Valentine’s Day still stands as a time to reflect upon and appreciate one’s relationship with others. At Georgetown, heterosexual couples as well as couples within the LGTBQ community have found unconventional ways to enjoy the holiday with their loved ones.
Perhaps Kaplan phrased it best when he said, “If I had thought when I was a Georgetown student that I would be in Dupont Circle with a husband and a baby 15 years later, I would never believe it. Valentine’s Day is the holiday of love, and my advice would be to find time on that day and any day that feels special to be you, to love you and to love those that love you.”