Valentine's Day in the Fourth District

Love conquers all. But pandemics wallop weddings, particularly large, group celebrations. Since 2013, the Fourth Judicial District has been offering free weddings for Valentine’s Day at the Hennepin County Government Center. This event was big from the start—with some 30 couples, more than a dozen judges, and other staff members from the court and Hennepin County Service Centers helping mark the holiday every year with a special day people would long remember. But, due to COVID, this year’s celebration had to be shelved.

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The event started with free weddings focused on first responders and military members, but it was always open to all. Indeed, after same-sex marriages were legalized in Minnesota later in 2013, the 2014 celebration drew couples from around the country. Tears of joys and spontaneous applause and laughter—that have become a hallmark of the Valentine’s Day weddings—were abundant in February 2014. So, too, were heart-touching stories from most about years of dedicated love that could, in 2014, be formally recognized under Minnesota law. Everyone was touched by families and friends who came together to celebrate. Some couples quietly reaffirmed their commitment to each other, while others did so in loud and expressive ways. Through it all, the power of love was obvious.

Each year, the Hennepin County Valentine’s Day event draws hundreds of participants. Couples generally start calling the Hennepin County Service Centers as early as Thanksgiving to see when they can sign up for the following February celebration. Usually, there are three dozen spots open for couples. When the lines “open” for people to register, the available spots quickly fill. That includes the spots for volunteer judges to sign-up to perform the ceremonies, and to perform at the ceremony. In addition to presiding over the individual ceremonies, each year a handful of judges do more—they sing and play music for those in attendance. Thanks to the musical skills of a handful of judges (and a couple of attorney friends), the atrium is filled with beautiful songs before the services, and moving scores during the ceremonies.

Another staple of each year’s event has been giving each couple a dollar coin for the purpose of immediately giving back to the community. Following their marriage, each couple is given the coin and invited to make a wish and throw the coin—sometimes through very elaborate tosses—into the fountain in the atrium. Each month, Hennepin County designates nonprofit charities to receive the coins tossed in the fountain. So, each year, these public service organizations get a little shot in the arm from the celebration. This small gesture is not lost on those in attendance. And, it is hoped, will be carried forward throughout the couple’s life together.

Prior to 2020’s event, all of the ceremonies were performed around the fountain on the skyway level of the Government Center. By having the large group assemble there, family members and friends had plenty of room to share the experience. And each couple shared in the spectacle of it all, while still having their individual, private ceremonies. Indeed, holding the weddings in such a public space allowed workers in the Government Center to watch from their interior office windows, which look down upon the atrium. By having the ceremonies over the lunch hour, an ever-growing crowd of interested onlookers was always guaranteed.

In 2020, a move was made to provide a more intimate experience for participants. While the group welcome and music-in-the-atrium continued, couples were sent up to the various bridges spanning the atrium to meet with their assigned judge. The ceremonies allowed family and friends to, again, participate. But the individual ceremonies were more private.

Through the years, local media have flocked to the event. Of course, it is newsworthy given the sheer size and timing of the event. It also makes for wonderful news on tv, in the newspapers, and on various digital platforms. Comments through these many media show the public is eager to see pictures and stories from the current year’s couples.

This year, though, the stories will not run on February 14. Due to the pandemic, the Fourth Judicial District and its partner, Hennepin County, had to put a hold on the public event. Due to social distancing and other concerns about having a large crowd congregate during these times, this year’s Valentine’s Day Wedding Celebration was cancelled.

But it will be back. There is simply too much joy resulting from this event to keep it down for long. The laughter and wonderful emotions captured within the walls of the atrium will not be silenced for long. Start planning for 2022.