February 13, 2004,
When the subject of Valentine's Day is broached, as it always is by retailers on January 2, my response is to roll my eyes heavenwards and sigh, "Not that again."
This is because I am an Old Married Lady and the holiday has become quite useless; it is, in fact, a burden imposed on me by Hallmark and its subsidiaries. Logic suggests that one day, all the Old Married People of this nation would rise up, storm to the closest stationer, and perform their best Howard Dean impressions: We're not going to send $4.95 cards with extra postage to New Hampshire! Or South Carolina! Or Texas! Or Arizona! We're NOT! Yeaggggrh! And then we'd go home, everyone a bit richer.
But, no, Valentine's Day endures because America is inhabited by docile wimps who lack the fortitude to say forcefully, no, my relationship with my mother will not improve if I purchase a sappy card written by some minimum-wage hack who has never met my mother or me (and is probably glad of it) and mail it with yet another Whitman's Sampler purchased at Walgreens.
So we buy the cards, eat the chocolates, choose the flowers, with a pained look of resignation, the look of the damned, the look of men in convenience stores searching for gifts on Christmas Eve. Anything to help the cause: The cause, of course, being the needs of retailers who otherwise would have to leap from Christmas to Easter merchandise without sufficient time for the Christ child to grow into a man. Can't have that.
Excuse the cynicism; remember, I'm married. And Valentine's Day divides this nation, much like the 2000 election does, or stick shift versus automatic. In this case, on opposite sides: the unmarried and the married.
For married people, V-Day induces a blue state: a dour mood brought on by the unnecessary expenditure of money that would be better spent on Girl Scout cookies, and the indignity of buying gifts for loved ones again! when we've not even yet paid for Christmas.
For single people, however, Valentine's Day brings on the red state. This is the rosy frame of mind colored by romance, soundtrack by Air Supply in which one awakens thinking that anything anything! could happen today: red roses, singing telegrams, Godiva, zirconia, proposals, sumptuous dinners at restaurants with obsequious waiters. Heck, maybe even a card!
There was a time, pre-diamond, that I looked forward to Valentine's Day. All children do; after all, it is a day of decorated shoeboxes and cinnamon red-hots and those naughty candy hearts that say, brashly, KISS ME! When you're eight, life doesn't get any racier than that, except on Super Bowl night.
The fun continued into my 20s, only the bar became higher. For single people, Valentine's Day is like New Year's Eve: a foolproof barometer of how your love life is going. Only difference is, on Feb. 14, not only do you need a date, but flowers on your desk. Good men sense this and act on it, mindful that single women see Valentine's Day as a reliable indicator of the quality of their relationships, their lives, and yes, their men.
During these premarital salad days, I once wrote an article purporting to guide men through the gift-giving gauntlet that is Valentine's Day. Modern women expect these things, I said: Flowers. Candy. Cards. (Yes, plural. One serious, one funny.) Dinner out, somewhere you can't afford, with reservations you made in December. And, a gift.
"This is where most men go wrong,'' I wrote. "They think that the flowers are the gift, the candy is the gift, the card is the gift. Wrong. Flowers, cards, and candy are auxiliary gifts, preludes to the real gift, which, done right, ought to have the word "carat" printed on it somewhere."
To all the men who were given that article by girlfriends who clipped it out of the newspaper: Guys, I am so sorry. What can I say? I was so young.
But Cupid got me back. These days, the observance of Valentine's Day requires a week of frantic preparation, annoyingly reminiscent of December. It includes the baking and decorating 48 heart-shaped cookies for the third-grade party, supervision of the signing of 96 Valentine cards (to which must be Scotch-taped a Hershey kiss or red lollipop), the purchase of five teacher gifts, and the mailing of $40 worth of cards to a dozen of my best-loved relatives. I have come to despise Valentine's Day, the businesses that promote it, and everything around me that's red.
I beg my dear Church to reclaim the Feast of St. Valentine, as declared in 498 A.D., and to diminish its importance, relegate it to the stature of, say, the Feast of St. Bonaventure. Maybe Rome could make Feb. 14 a holy day of obligation, which would compel most American Catholics to ignore it.
Don't misunderstand. I have nothing against romance; Pepe Le Pew is my hero. And there are many good uses for fine chocolates and white roses, but, like the careful annihilation of Democratic presidential contenders, everything's in the timing. When it's Wal-Mart telling me to get frisky, it deadens the romantic impulse.
We married people already have a personal day of romance. It's called an anniversary. So, honey, you can skip the card and the gift and the flowers this weekend. But in June, you better deliver.
Jennifer Nicholson Graham is a freelance journalist who lives in Richmond, Virginia and an NRO contributor.