What We Talk About When We Talk About Culturally Constructed Holidays

Five out of six dentists agree that five out of the last six Valentine’s Days I’ve lived through have mostly sucked. The one in the middle was swell, though, since a wonderful friend was at my house to visit and she generously shared the roses her husband, also visiting, bought her. And an old, old friend sent me a gift he’d meant to give me back in 1986. So that was a Valentine’s Day worthy of the scrapbook.

The rest have been worthy of the scrap pile.

The crazy thing is that I never used to consider myself someone who got hung up on holidays. Me? Expect roses and presents? Not really. I mean, I liked cards, but mostly, I just wanted a song that had been written for me. No biggie, just blood, sweat, and tears, if you don’t mind. I giggle at that thought, but in truth, I was fairly levelheaded about pomp and circumstance requirements.

smallheartBut as soon as I was single again, boy, those garish Hallmark card displays and ubiquitous balloon bundles that hover over grocery store check out aisles, their strings like jellyfish tentacles, began to irk me mightily. I can see now how other similar American Holidays on Steroids versions of old favorites like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter might bother similarly excluded people who do not match the target buying demographic, but I didn’t fully know that sting until I found myself standing outside the display window, metaphorically speaking, for Valentine’s Day, 2008. The year before that had sucked too, but for reasons that had not yet come to their devastating conclusion.

For the first couple of years of my born again singledom, I felt like the military-marketing complex was personally thumbing its non-human nose at me. Or its paper heart at me, to be more precise. And all the ads and songs and rhetoric and sheer product being pushed meant I felt nostalgic for a time in my life that hadn’t ever really existed. I mean, Valentine’s Day reached its pinnacle of meaning in my life back in the 4th grade. Or had reached …until I felt like I had no one with whom to celebrate, and then, boy, did I manufacture a whole bunch of sweet memories just so I could miss those old days. Let’s just say Instagram has nothing on hazy filters next to my brain.

For a couple of years during this Valentine’s Day love drought, I did enjoy a sweet tradition in our ward Relief Society, that of writing love notes for other women, which were then delivered to homes by Relief Society presidency members. Does it make me seem like a maudlin drama queen to admit that I a) have saved all of those love notes I received and b) cried directly onto the pink and red slips of paper while listening to “Helplessly Hoping” or some other favorite love song? All I can say is, it’s a good thing I have a measure of self-awareness, because I have far too much inclination toward self-pitying dramatic displays than is probably healthy for a woman of my age and station. My heart breaks for other people too, though. I am a bleeding heart in the largest sense of the word and phrase. I weep for myself, yes, but for others too, for all of the lonely hearts and hurting souls and lost people and everyone. Just to clarify.

But this year feels…different on the personal maudlin-ness front. I’m taking this holiday o’ love less personally, I guess, less begrudgingly. I am happy for those who know the beauties of reciprocal love. I hope that means you, if you want it! I have even been able to scroll through the plethora of Adorable with a capital A Valentine’s Day crafts and ideas on Pinterest without spitting at the screen. And get this? I bought cards for my family members and happily perused those red-enveloped selections for nearly 45 minutes without feeling sad. My favorite Valentine, though, was spotted in a friend’s Facebook feed with pictures of her child’s cards to be given out to school friends; it was the one featuring a darling cartoon C3PO and the words “I want to be the droid you’re looking for” in pink scripty letters. Awwww. My heart practically melted. 

I did allow myself a few sad messages to someone who has both caused and known my Valentine’s pain up close and personal, a few texts of general whining about not getting it right and so forth, and he responded in a most surprising fashion: “I envy you your passion for love and friendship, Erin.” He envied me? That was a new one. I have long envied his cavalier detachment and wished I was somehow programmed to care less, not more. But the truth is, I am who I am. And we are who we are. And boy, card companies and department stores and big box retailers really play to that. But this year, I am trying to pay a little less attention to the enormous displays. The truth is, I have a lot of love in my life. And I know I am capable of loving deeply. I know I am capable of loving deeply because of how deeply I have hurt. And I don’t mean romantic hurt, exclusively. Platonic, familial, take your pick. We’re all hurting in some way. And I know I have hurt people too. The pain can sometimes carve out greater capacity for feeling (as long as it doesn’t carve through a load-bearing wall!). As Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “Everything I know, I know because of love.” Ain’t that the truth? Our collective love-related wisdom is great indeed, all of us.

But I didn’t know much at all about love in all of its forms and shapes back in 4th grade. Though that may have been the pinnacle, I’m glad to have moved on.

I am going to try to take back some of my Valentine’s Day power this week and use it to honor the many ways love has shown itself to me, including through many of you. I will buy myself chocolate as needed, and I will make special pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream for the two people I live with and love more than anything. And I will listen, again, to Regina Spektor’s “On the Radio” and sing along with the second verse especially, because I think she sings the truth:

This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

I might even take myself to eat at the local Indian restaurant, because they are having a Valentine’s Day all-you-can-eat even buffet. I noticed an enormous red and gold banner hanging at the back of the restaurant advertising the February 14th special the last time I ate there, and I have this hunch that in the town where I live, few people will associate all-you-can-eat Indian food buffets with romantic dining. So maybe my streak of suck-y Valentine’s Days might come to an end in 2013, even though my relationship status has not changed.


So…what’s your favorite love song to listen to on Valentine’s Day? Any favorite traditions you’re looking forward to? Or are you boycotting this mass-marketed holiday in favor of other less commercial pursuits?