I’m not sappy, I don’t like couples-y things, and if you really want to have your day ruined, ask me what I think about weddings. Still, Valentine’s Day is my favorite holiday because I’ve always spent it buying things for myself—perfume, lingerie, and fresh-cut roses (never red)—and doing whatever feels most indulgent. But last February 13, I got a card in the mail from one of my best friends, filled with warm words about our friendship and how we make each other’s lives better. The card reminded me of the section in Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies that explores female friendships and the importance of maintaining and treasuring non-romantic relationships that, for many of us, are the strongest partnerships in our lives.
Galentine’s Day began life as a plot point in a season 2 episode of Parks and Recreation, a holiday the cheerful and supportive Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) created to celebrate the women in her life. “Every February 13, my lady friends and I leave our husbands and our boyfriends at home, and we just come and kick it, breakfast-style.” Knope’s tradition includes waffles, over-the-top gifts, and all the other trappings of a traditional Valentine’s Day, but its only purpose is to honor friendships with the same amount of zeal that Hallmark and Russell Stover honors romantic love.
In the nine years since Leslie Knope introduced Galentine’s Day, women have made February 13 a real-life celebration, hosting everything from sex-toy parties and scary-movie marathons to girls’ trips and spa days—as well as my own favorite activity, writing letters of love and appreciation to abortion providers. Adapting traditional V-day traditions to celebrate friends has, for some women, been “life-changing.”
But Galentine’s Day shouldn’t necessarily get all the credit for this. As kids, long before romantic love becomes part of our lives, lots of us celebrate Valentine’s Day by sharing cards and candy hearts with classmates and friends. As adults, we might decorate our offices and buy cards or presents for parents, children, pets, and other non-romantic loved ones. It’s easy to think of Valentine’s Day as a binary celebration—either you’re in a couple and embrace its cliché traditions, or you’re single and resent it—because so much of the messaging and marketing around it supports that reading of it despite our own experiences to the contrary. It’s not a dearth of romantic love that makes Valentine’s Day seem tired and outdated, but its consumerist trappings and imperatives.
The way we culturally define and prioritize love and partnership has been changing for a long time, regardless of what holidays we celebrate or what we buy to mark them. Simultaneously, an increasing recognition of the internalized misogyny that pits women against one another in “catfights” has found us rethinking social conditioning and understanding that romantic relationships don’t have to be—and shouldn’t be expected to be—our most important or rewarding ones.
Evidence of a more nuanced vision of what love can look like is all around us. Take Shine Theory, a term coined by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, who are best friends and cohosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. Shine Theory is about seeing our friends’ success and well-being as intrinsic to our own, upending the stereotype of women catfighting over patriarchy’s scraps by pointing out that “when one of us shines, we all do,” and encouraging “collaboration, not competition.”
Galentine’s Day reflects a long-standing desire to express love in non-romantic, non-heteronormative, non-commercial ways, no matter how much of a premium society puts on those forms.
Of course, as Galentine’s Day has normalized celebrating the platonic love we share with our “lady friends,” it’s also rapidly become commercialized in much the same way as its lovey-dovey counterpart is, something I realized while researching the holiday and finding myself bombarded with listicles about things to buy. The fictional-turned-actual holiday reflects two existing realities. The first is that no matter what the occasion is or how wholesome or subversive the event chosen to mark it, consumerism will find a way to creep in. But Galentine’s Day also reflects a long-standing desire to express love in non-romantic, non-heteronormative, non-commercial ways, no matter how much of a premium society puts on those forms. Showing ourselves and the people we love—all of them—how important they are to us predates that much-beloved and now famous Parks and Recreation episode. And while we owe so much to Leslie and her ladies, we’ve never needed their permission to party.