09 February 2011

I (Heart) You

We are fast approaching one of the more peculiar (if pleasant) holidays on the calendar: Valentine's day. Originated as a religious observance for a brutally murdered church figure (or three separate ones, to be technical), and bearing no organic relation to romance, somehow this feast day was morphed in the 14th century into a celebration of romantic love. And that, my friends, is a testament to the adaptability of Chaucerian chivalry. Ah, those crazy kids!

I still remember grade-school valentine day customs: each hopeful student decorated a brown lunch bag with hearts, and hung them on the wall (the bags). In some years you were allowed to put names on them, in some not. It didn't matter. If your love was true, you knew identifying crayon marks (after a little insider information). Generally, you were obliged to give a valentine to each student in your class. But if you wanted to give that bigger "teacher" one to that special someone, well...

It strikes me as odd, now that I am a parent, that we encourage romantic gift-giving at this early age. I does explain some things, however. These cards, aimed at children, understandably didn't actually use the word "love," and were more likely to say something like, "You're a pal!" or worse, "Don't bug me! Be mine." Hardly the sort of message you might wish to convey to your life-mate. It makes you wonder if this is the genesis of our inability to express ourselves romantically.

We are driven by the problem of what to say. How many times have you stood in the stationary store and poured over the greeting card offerings for an extended amount of time looking for just the right card? I can't begin to know how many gazillions of dollars these guys make because we are wretched at expressing ourselves with our own words. However, if you are one of the sentiment-challenged, don't feel bad. Apparently there are enough of us out there to make the card companies some serious coin.

In some respects, it's a sign of the truly cushy lives we lead that we have "people" who express our affection for us. That may seem a little scary, on the surface. But we labor over these cards because we do have affection in our hearts that we wish someone to express, on our behalf, and we are quite sincere about how the words will sound. We are eager to strike the right balance between humorous and sappy; we want to convey our profound admiration without provoking gagging noises or coming off as weirdly frightening. We would like the reader to laugh because the card is funny, not because our giving it was laughable. Walking-hand-in-hand-on- the-beach cards are probably a better bet than something which uses the words Republican or Democrat, no matter how sincerely felt.

In the end, the true measure of a valentine card is not the pre-printed sentiment written by some hack at Hallmark. It is the little extra something we add with our own pen. For those of you who are seizing up at the very notion of having to add a written message - relax. She (and we know most of you are men) knows you're probably not all that good with words. She will be delighted you even darkened Walgreen's door to get the card to begin with. She will be even more thrilled if you put almost anything more than your name at the bottom. Go for the gusto - draw a heart with your initials in it. For my husband, this is easy since our initials are the same (on the off chance he forgot who I was).

The true art here is to evaluate your target audience. People give valentines for lots of different reasons: I received them from my mother-in-law as though I was one of her children, a gesture which I cherished. I sometimes give them to my grown-up kids. My friends exchange funny-friend ones. If romance is the ultimate aim, however, it is important to balance how much the recipient is expecting a gesture of this sort with the depth of seriousness of the emotion expressed. If this is apt to be something of a surprise, it may be best to keep it conservative (lest the summoning of the cops becomes an issue). And no matter how much you think you know about a person, this is one holiday where tasteful and traditional is undoubtedly best.

This is your chance to put your heart out there, a little paper test-flight of sorts, soaring aloft on carefully crafted words of esteem and affection.

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