Why I celebrate Galentine’s Day, not Valentine’s Day

Parks and Recreation - Season 6

February’s here, which to most of us means cold and drudgery with just a few bright spots: an annual viewing of Groundhog Day, some kind of televised figure skating and yes, Valentine’s Day, a holiday that, with its merely tenuous connection to an obscure saint, has long been chided as a greeting card creation. But it’s widely celebrated nonetheless because yes, love, and what else is there to do in February? As I type this, I have just moments ago indulged in some Valentine’s-related consumption by ordering a selection of vintage Valentines from Etsy. You might assume I ordered these to hand out on Valentine’s Day, perhaps to leave a trail of notes for my loving fiancé. But you’d be wrong-they’re actually for the fictional-turned-actual holiday Galentine’s Day, and I plan to send them to my female friends with a goofy yet feminist message inside.

The thing is, I’ve never been much for the sincere, Hallmark-sanctioned romance of Valentine’s Day, and I don’t really do romantic cards. As for my fiancé, well the last time I made him a Valentine it featured a photo of Val Kilmer lying on a beach with the message “Happy ‘VAL’-entine’s Day” (he loved it, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never top it). Sure, we go out to dinner because I’ll never miss an occasion to order an overpriced cocktail and dessert. But all the roses and balloons and commercials for Jane Seymour’s Open Hearts collection can feel a little stifling.

Single or not, I’ve long seen the Valentine’s Day season as an excuse to get together with girlfriends who appreciate its cheesiest aspects, like sickly-sweet drink specials at places like Bar Louie, or the usually terrible “date” movies that are much more fun when watched with a snarky cadre of ladies (past notables include the lamest-of-lame Valentine’s Day, He’s Just Not that Into You, and, of course, the surprisingly entertaining Fifty Shades of Grey, best enjoyed with smuggled canned champagne). Because so much of the cultural programming around the holiday is already geared toward women, Galentine’s Day seems like a natural idea, just one that we had to wait for the great minds of Parks and Recreation to dream up.

Galentine’s Day made its debut in a 2010 episode of the sitcom. In the cold open, feminist heroine Leslie Knope (played by feminist heroine Amy Poehler) has gathered her mother and friends together for a female-bonding brunch, presenting them all with elaborate gifts, such as mosaic portraitsmade from crushed soda bottles and 3,000-word essays on each woman’s greatness. “It’s like Lilith Fair,” she explains, “minus the angst, plus frittatas!” There’s no more mention of Galentine’s Day in the episode, but those few opening minutes were enough to spark the imaginations of many female viewers-why don’t we have a holiday celebrating female friendship?

One of the things I loved most about Parks and Recreation at its peak was its devotion to female friendship, in particular that between Leslie and Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), whose friendship grounds the first two seasons in particular. In this post-Sex and the City-era, it’s easy to forget just how underrepresented female friendship has long been in popular culture. The old romantic comedy trope is that women friends are often present to provide sassy advice to our leading ladies, and then disappear because romance, like Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle or Bonnie Hunt in any ’90s romantic comedy. (Or take the atrocity committed by the bland Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman vehicle No Strings Attached, which wasted both Mindy Kaling and Greta Gerwig in such roles.)

But in the same way Parks and Rec put female friendship first, Galentine’s Day is dedicated to lifting up the platonic relationship. A female friend is not a consolation prize, or a chocolate-ice-cream-and-wine delivery person who pops over only when we’re single and dateless, but a crucial part of our lives. Romantic relationships get all the attention, but friendships make the world go ’round, too.

Rosie O'Donnell and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle (image via Sony/TriStar)

I didn’t host my first Galentine’s Day celebration until 2013, once I had become a certified Parks and Rec fanatic.  That year, I made a reservation for a group of girlfriends at a local brunch spot, and set about putting together some Leslie Knope cards with construction paper and glue. Likewise, my friend made heart-shaped lapel pins for the occasion, both of us finding in these childlike crafts a way to express our dedication to our friends (and of course to instigate a wacky, pop culture-inspired good time). It was a snowy, ice-cold Pittsburgh morning, but it’s nonetheless a great memory: laughing, brunching and drinking mimosas was not out of the ordinary, but the silly sense of occasion was. It was a time to explicitly acknowledge how thankful we were to have each other-minus angst, plus frittatas.

I was feeling pretty clever and irreverent in my choice to begin celebrating a television holiday. As a person who wrote her Master’s thesis on Roseanne and never lost a TV theme song guessing game, this was firmly in my wheelhouse. But in talking to others about my February 13th brunch plans, I realized I wasn’t the only one-far from it. A whole group of women from my graduate program were also celebrating Galentine’s Day with a brunch, and Facebook informed me there were more still. I felt strangely indignant: no one is a bigger Parks and Recreation fan than me! I wondered if people celebrating the holiday were actually fans of the show, or had simply heard of the concept. Quickly I recognized that these were stupid thoughts to be having, and un-Leslie Knope-ish at that. Fans or not, it didn’t matter: Galentine’s Day as a concept was already becoming bigger than a TV show.

Now in 2016, the Internet is full of articles on how to celebrate Galentine’s Day, and there’s even a small industry around it. In addition to free printable cards, online shops offer Galentine’s t-shirts, cards, tote bags, buttons, and even wine bags and bottle labels (wine being the unofficial beverage of Galentine’s Day).  A quick google search for “Galentine’s Day 2016” returns pages of results announcing upcoming events-a masquerade ball for charity in Portsmouth, a women’s retreat in Tacoma, a special roller derby match in Indianapolis, an elegant tea party in Elkridge, Maryland. Are the organizers of these events Leslie Knope fans? One would assume so. But many make no mention of the show in their descriptions. It’s clear that in its way, Galentine’s Day has become a real, bona-fide holiday.

Still, Galentine’s Day remains fairly unknown outside the specific demographic of women in their late 20s and early 30s-the same group for whom funny feminists like Poehler, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling and Amy Schumer are an inspiration. But outside of this group of us, Galentine’s Day doesn’t often register. For example, a few years ago one of my friends was working as a copywriter for an online clothing company for young women. When she referenced Galentine’s Day in one of her February product descriptions, she received props all around from her twenty-and-thirtysomething female coworkers. But her boss (an older man) didn’t feel the same: he cut the reference, convinced no one would understand such a made-up term. In this way, Galentine’s Day was and is kind of an open secret, which is definitely part of its appeal. Unlike Valentine’s Day, with its prix fixe dinners and customized jewelry, Galentine’s Day is ours, and we can make it what we want it to be.

It’s easy to see why women in our age group have adopted Galentine’s Day as our own. We are out of college and working, many of us living with a significant other and some of us married. As we struggle to stay connected, it’s natural to look back fondly on the days when we could spend unlimited amounts of time with our girlfriends. Galentine’s Day celebrates that sense of closeness and silliness that is often neglected as we grow older and take on more responsibilities. When you have a busy career or are raising kids, it may seem frivolous to spend precious time crafting elaborate gifts for your gal-pals. But it’s worth it for those feelings of giddiness that come flooding back, reminding us what it means to make a life-long friend. It brings back the appreciation we feel being surrounded by those who fully understand us. And it reminds us to value these relationships, on which we are not explicitly dependent, but without which we would feel a great loss.

So on February 14th, feel free celebrate Valentine’s Day, to eat that decadent chocolate pot de crème while gazing into the eyes of a lover. But on February 13th, let us eat waffles, or drink wine, or watch Fifty Shades of Grey and roll our eyes. Let us give each other homemade gifts, advice and support. Let us take a moment to remember how important our friendships are, whether we’re single or coupled.

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