My mother hated holidays when I was growing up; she used to joke that she wanted to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses mostly because they didn’t believe in celebrating Christmas. Valentine’s Day was mostly something we did at school: shoeboxes decorated with cut-out construction paper hearts, and everyone in the class had to send valentines to everybody else. They were usually the ones that came four to a punch-out card, with pictures of animals, saying “I wish you a bear-y happy Valentine’s Day”.
When I got older, I never really saw the point of Valentine’s Day. I was married young, at eighteen, to a very practical and logical man. He didn’t really like talking about — or having — emotions. I felt like the earlier creep of hearts and flowers in the aisles of the grocery store (first the beginning of February… then late January) was a lot of pressure that I didn’t want to cave to. I didn’t want to feel like I had to express my affection at a particular time, and the cultural narrative was one of romance and appreciation for that romance: if you didn’t have a partner, spouse, or at least a date for Valentine’s Day, you weren’t doing it right. I didn’t like that message, and I didn’t want to subscribe to a holiday that insisted my single friends were somehow failing just for being single in mid-February. I really liked the candy and chocolates that went on sale on February 15, though.
When I left North America for Australia, Valentine’s Day started to recede. American traditions are spreading a little bit like a benign fungus; thanks to popular culture and a global awareness through the internet, customs like Black Friday (the “biggest shopping day of the year”, the Friday after American Thanksgiving) and Valentine’s Day are grabbing a foothold everywhere. My Australian friends had obviously heard of Valentine’s Day but it wasn’t anything like the big deal the United States made out of it — maybe one small shelf in the store, tucked away in a corner, with a few pink and red cupcakes in the bakery section. We were too busy searching for avocados that cost less than $5 apiece to pay much attention.
Then eventually, I moved to Sweden, which has a way of celebrating Valentine’s Day that I really enjoy. Here, it’s called “Alla Hjärtans Dag,” and instead of being used to celebrate only your romantic partner, it’s an opportunity to show everyone you love how much you love them: grandparents, children, best friends, you name it. You can still make valentines and put them in shoeboxes, but Swedes think it’s important to celebrate love in all its different guises. That is an idea I can definitely get behind, and appreciate. Even though it’s still a bit of a made-up holiday, I look forward to all the opportunities I have to feel connected with my loved ones… and also get cheap candy.