It starts out as fun. You buy a box of Peanuts cards, carefully separating them along the perforations. You write "Love" and your name on each one. You take your class list and put each name on its own envelope. Then you put a card in each envelope, fold over the top and seal it, maybe with a sticker if you're creative. You go to school with about 20 envelopes and come home with the same number, one from each classmate.
Later, it gets a little more complicated. You don't want to give everyone in your class a Valentine. In fact, there is one person you want to make sure gets a special message. Should it be anonymous? Should you buy a "real" card so you stand out from the Snoopys and Lucys? Should you tell your friend you're taking this heart-on-the-line step? Or would that lead to a singsong teasing in the classroom: "Guess who likes you, guess who likes you!" You don't get a Valentine from everyone in the class, maybe not even from the one person you had singled out for special treatment. Real life--messy, unfair, unpredictable, occasionally transcendent life--has begun.
I know I'm not the only one who spent years ignoring, resenting, even dreading Valentine's Day. Worst of all were the adolescent years. Throughout junior high and high school it was obvious who had a boyfriend and who had been left by the side of love's road. Those who were loved made sure everyone knew it, showing off their cards, candy, flowers or trinkets. (As a child of the '70s, I remember one classmate receiving the ultimate Valentine's offering: a card with a joint enclosed.) I was never the recipient of any Valentine's Day messages during those years, other than cards from Grandma and my younger sisters. Despised holiday!
College wasn't much better. Although I dated, I never seemed to be part of a couple when February 14th rolled around. I still have a little mouse holding a heart given to me by my friend Peter junior year. But he was (and is) "just" a friend--albeit the only man from that era still in my life! During senior year there was a blizzard in New York on Valentine's Day and we had a big dorm party. One dorm resident took that opportunity to confess a crush on me, but since it wasn't returned, the whole thing cast a pall over the evening. The fact that he was Peter's roommate just made it more awkward.
Of course, there have been plenty of years when I was the one whose crushes were unrequited. That's the way life works.
In my 20s I had some pretty dreadful Valentine' Day experiences, which I won't get into here. At age 30 I got married. After some years of marking the holiday the traditional ways (you know, flowers and cards), we kind of tapered off from "celebrating." After you hear that "For us, every day is Valentine's Day!" line a few times, you can translate it accurately: you won't be getting much. Of course, you don't have to give much either.
Yes, Valentine's Day (or VD as it is unfortunately abbreviated) is as fraught as a fake consumer-driven holiday can be. It puts pressure on relationships new and old: to find a card with an appropriate message, to gift or not to gift, to propose or not to propose, to acknowledge the cheesiness of the entire concept or paint oneself as a romantic eager for any chance to express love to (this year's) one and only.
Over the years I've received some decent cards and even some flowers. All is calm on the Valentine's Day front these days. But the memories of VDs past still haunt me.