Fashion

Could lockdown relight our love for Valentine's Day? | Jess Cartner-Morley


Valentine’s Day can feel like the most heartless of festive days. Your favourite restaurant is regimented into tables for two like an examination hall for romance, with whispered conversations sternly invigilated by overattentive waiters. Performative social media posts passive-aggressively alert you to a world of breakfast trays laid with rose petals and emerald earrings.

The valentine industry has become a commercial juggernaut in which love is weighed and measured in pounds and pence. In 2020, the average Brit spent £35 on Valentine’s gifts. It is no surprise that we have fallen out of love with a day when we are supposed be celebrating love.

But, just maybe, this is the year to say yes to Valentine’s Day. In this bleakest of winters, we need all the excitement we can get. It is an imperfect holiday, no doubt about that, but this never-ending pandemic isn’t a bundle of laughs either, so from where I’m sitting the bar looks pretty low. A Sunday to celebrate love might be cheesy, but an afternoon spent sharing a heart-shaped box of chocolates from the petrol station has the edge on yet another Groundhog Day loop of the park under a saucepan lid-grey sky. Valentine’s Day might be too saccharine for your sophisticated tastes, but wouldn’t this year go down easier with a spoonful of sugar?

Lockdown presents us with an opportunity to “renationalise” what has become an industry and transform it back into a ritual. A modern Valentine’s Day sometimes feels like watching Casablanca or Brief Encounter with an ad break every five minutes. Even the most diehard romantic starts to feel a cynical eye-roll coming on, being so relentlessly marketed to. But with shops and restaurants closed, we can spool Valentine’s Day back to being an essentially harmless moment of love and levity.

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There is zero pressure this year to stress about getting a table at a restaurant in order to put an overpriced set menu on a credit card. There are few delusions of grandeur. Not even the most optimistic lover holds out much hope of being whisked off to Paris or Rome this weekend. If you are single, this isn’t going to be the year for that romcom meet-cute where you lock eyes with The One as you both reach for the same vintage album in the record store, so the pressure is off.

This year, without the commercial noise, Valentine’s Day is less shrill. Just the “I love you”, without the violins. There is room for a more inclusive version of the story. Before the holiday got cellophane-wrapped as a day exclusively for couples – a kind of Noah’s Ark with chocolate-dipped strawberries – much of the joy was in its innocent lust. A row of question and exclamation marks, and writing the address with your non-writing hand for anonymity. Posting an unsigned card to a friend and then swearing blind you had nothing to do with it. The promise of a pink or red envelope poking out from under the bills on the doormat, like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. A day for sending a little flattery and affection out into the universe, without expecting a receipt.

The novelist Jilly Cooper said recently that she sends 30 or 40 cards every year, to “my favourite men and women, just saying: ‘Hello and I love you.’” A card in the post or a bunch of daffodils on the doorstep can mean romantic intrigue, an esteem-boosting fillip of affection or just socially distanced friendship. And there is so much joy in all of these.

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Few will mourn the absence of Valentine tat. The day’s slide into red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism is reflected in an unlovable aesthetic which is overdue a makeover. Heart-shaped foil balloons, the creepy infantilisation of giant teddy bears: this is a pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap, departure-gate gift-stand kind of love. It is a mirror image of Halloween, just with love hearts in place of pumpkins. The US has led the way in the commercialisation of February 14: last year, each person spent an average of almost $200. Remaking the image of Valentine’s Day in lockdown – handmade cards in the absence of Paperchase; a homespun kind of tablescaping without swan napkins or cocktail umbrellas – will make it more beautiful, not less.

It won’t be perfect. Valentine’s Day never is. Single people already mourning a lost year of romantic opportunities may view it as a thoroughly unwelcome milestone. For couples living together, the prospect of a quiet dinner may struggle for novelty value after a year which has been abundant with them. But in a time when our lives have been stripped of bells and whistles, love in all its forms – family, friends and neighbours, as well as romance – has done a lot of heavy lifting to get us through.

It is true that smug people are really annoying on Valentine’s Day, but now that we live with Instagram, smug people will get in your face all year round if you let them. So don’t let them. You don’t have to promise to fall back in love with Valentine’s Day. Just give it a second chance.

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