De-gooing the day
I often wonder to myself exactly what Valentine's Day is all about.
I mean, is it a genuine romantic occasion that reminds us to be nice to the ones we love and do those little things we conveniently forget over the other 364 days?
Or is it merely an event blown out of all proportion by people looking to sell cards, flowers and hideous teddy bears? Is it a sort of self-fulfilling celebration that we, as a race, have created to fill a commercial void?
We are talking about an occasion that is only celebrated to its full extent in a handful of countries around the world. Yet, we still manage to buy a billion Valentine cards each year between us.
And that suggests that whatever its reason for existence, we are taking February 14 pretty seriously.
When I started writing this piece it obviously provoked a little bit of introspection and, as I looked back over the years, I couldn't help notice how my view of this 'big day' had changed with time. And I am fairly certain that holds true for most people.
For example, as a child, Valentine's Day is a complete non-event. Especially for boys.
From birth to early teens, Valentine's is a day that passes us by almost entirely unnoticed. Yes, there will be a little teasing in the playground and the occasional forged card slipped into the odd school bag. For the most part, though, other far more important issues take precedence - like football, computer games and generally causing trouble.
At that point in your life, girls are little more than something to laugh at, annoy, or simply avoid like the plague.
Then, almost without warning, you enter your teens and the mysterious world of the opposite sex suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. Girls, while still not top of the agenda, start to take on more significance. No longer merely creatures with pullable hair, but a species you actually want to get to know.
And with that change comes the inevitable shift in your perception of Valentine's Day.
Whereas once the thought of receiving a card or two was bordering on repulsive, it now becomes not entirely unappealing. Of course, you remain in denial in front of your pals and laugh the whole thing off as a 'girly occasion.
But in private you start to hope that the cute girl in history who once glanced in your general direction is busy at home cutting out hearts to stick on a card that will be heading your way.
Obviously you don't stoop as low as to send one yourself. Firstly, because that would be tantamount to admitting you believe in all that love nonsense. Secondly, because if anyone found out about your undying love for the girl down the road, the teasing and mockery from your friends would be relentless and cruel.
As you move into your middle teens, and adolescence swarms over you like a rash, Valentine's Day becomes a little more serious. After all, there is only so much you can do with a Playstation.
With that new knowledge, your desires become a little more focused, helped by the fact that the cute girl from history has unexpectedly blossomed into the stunning young woman from history.
In a move of supreme romantic bravery, you pluck up the courage to send her a card. Although it's not signed, you hope some subliminal sense will tell her it's from you. You even compose your own little poem to go inside, despite struggling for hours to find a word to rhyme with 'history'.
What never seems to occur to boys of this age, though, is that they may not be alone in their love conquest. You fail to realise your card will probably go unnoticed amid the other 47 that are discreetly stuffed in her school bag.
This is also the period in your life when that most dreaded card of all can sometimes materialise - the one from your mother. Although I never received one myself (at least I hope I didn't), it is an undeniable fact that it happens. Although this is probably the most well-intentioned card you will ever receive, it has almost limitless potential for disaster if the truth is uncovered.
As you leave your teens and move into adulthood proper, Valentine's Day takes on a whole new perspective. Gone are the days of anonymity. Now it is all about making sure you have a date proper for the big night.
Yes, you will still act all proud and nonchalant in front of your male friends, but deep down inside you know that not having someone to share the evening can leave you feeling a little empty inside.
There are, of course, the conscientious objectors who refuse to give Valentine's Day an ounce of importance. There are men and women who believe the whole event is just a figment of the card-companies' imagination.
But these people are in the minority. For most, a Valentine's Day on your own can be a lonely affair. Which is why there are always so many anti-Valentine's events going on. It gives single people a place to go where they won't have to watch loved-up couples cooing sweet nothings into each other's ears. It is a welcome oasis in a desert of forced romance. And a good place to pull.
The next stage comes when you are married or in long-term relationship. Valentine's Day is then little more than a good reason to be nice to each other. With the pressures of life being what they are, we have a tendency to take the significant others in our lives a little for granted. February 14 then, becomes a decent excuse to remind yourself exactly why you are with who you are with.
Finally, we come to old age. Although I haven't quite reached that stage yet, I imagine the occasion takes on a whole new set of challenges in your later years, like to remember the date and who it is you are supposed to be Valentining.
However, with those hurdles safely negotiated, you would expect it to become a supremely rewarding occasion packed with a million memories and reminiscences and maybe even the occasional tear.
As events go, Valentine's Day does have its problems. It is, undoubtedly, over commercialised. Shop windows full of soft toys and fluffy hearts do have the ability to churn the stomach. And you can almost feel forced into celebrating it by the media.
But, if you take the day back to basics and scrape off all the sugar-coated sickly sweetness, I think February 14 does have a decent role to play in our lives.
Once in a while it's good to take stock of where you are, who you are with and why you are with them. More often than not you will realise you are exactly where you want to be.
And that can only be a good thing, can't it?
This article appeared in the Valentine's Day supplement of The Sunday Times, February 8, 2009.