It was customary when I was in grade school to bestow a valentine upon every person in one’s class. These valentines were not of the handmade or heartfelt variety, but rather bought in bulk from CVS, from the red-cellophane aisle, on the shelf next to the seasonal Whitman’s Samplers and conversation hearts.
Each box of cards had a theme — Disney characters, Garfield, the Berenstain Bears — but were otherwise generic, bearing anodyne tidings of holiday cheer. You’d scrawl your signature on each of the 25 cards, stuff them into their flimsy red envelopes and address them, painstakingly, to each member of your class.
The process might have felt impersonal to an adult, but as a child, receiving dozens of little envelopes that were addressed to me, in the individual penmanship of each of my classmates, felt heavenly. It was exciting to open each one and see which cartoon character hid inside, to be lavished with so much attention. It was an early exercise in seeing and being seen.
Love was, in this classroom scenario, democratic, if dutiful. Over time, of course, we become more selective in how we confer our affection. Eventually, Valentine’s Day, should we choose to participate, becomes a day for honoring one sweetheart, for celebrating a single relationship. One card, one box of chocolates, one dinner reservation.
Efforts have been made to enlarge the circle of those we honor on Valentine’s Day; in 2010 the television comedy “Parks and Recreation” introduced us to “Galentine’s Day,” when women celebrate their female friends. It seems to have achieved some staying power, both for its inclusivity and for its profit-generating potential. But at its heart, under the layers of commercialism and cliché, Valentine’s Day’s core proposition is still one of selectivity (of varying degrees), of special someones and Steady Freddies.
The modern phenomenon of Valentine’s Day gets weirder the closer you look at it: We have this one day when we focus on love, when it’s acceptable — nay, expected — that we communicate tender feelings, preferably in the form of a card, in which those feelings have been inscribed. We engage in a more or less choreographed, calendar-delimited expression of romance and emotion. Then it’s back to worldly cares and business as usual on February 15.