Deconstructing Valentine’s Day

As waves of advertisements keep informing me, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Indeed, it is a holiday of ever-growing proportions here in the U.S., as people buy tokens of affection not just for sweethearts but for anyone in their lives who they feel could use a bit of love. A case in point: Although my husband and I don’t really celebrate it (I have this nonconformist streak), I still felt obliged to pick up a card for each of my grandmothers. Because my own feelings aside, I want their hearts to be warmed come February 14. (And when I was a kid, my mom’s mom got me presents for Valentine’s Day, so it only seems fair).

Holiday behaviors: Rooted in our values?

This act prompted a realization: Perhaps one of the reasons that Americans collectively spend so much money and energy on holidays is because the individual matters to us, and giving a gift is a way to show our care for a specific person. It works with our frugal nature, since we can splurge on a small item like a card or box of chocolates without breaking the bank (if you buy diamonds, it’s a different story). We are also action-oriented, and buying a gift, wrapping it, delivering it, and opening it constitutes a series of physical, observable, tangible tasks which “count” as deposits in the relational bank account. And it ties into our focus on time: Engaging in an act of kindness on the very day designated for it is so efficient! Moreover, we highly value responsibility and self-management: Taking the initiative and buying a gift bolsters our self-esteem and helps us appear like caring partners in the relationship, like someone that can be depended on. Likewise, it makes the recipient feel good because he or she knows that work was involved, and can bask in the glow of someone caring enough to take the time to do it. Cynics may say this reveals how we are superficial, but that’s an argument for someone else. What I see is that our way of celebrating is distinctively American, and we can only be expected to engage in holidays in a way that makes cultural sense.

Love in the USA

Beyond the holiday, is there a cultural component to how Americans love? I would say that we are captivated by the fantasy of a perfect relationship built with someone who is at once a lover, best friend, confidant, true partner . . . the whole package. This is reflected by our use of the words “soul mate” when we’ve found the one person we want to share our lives with, as well as our general belief that the perfect match for us “is out there.” Yet we also acknowledge that maintaining this “takes work” (naturally – because we are achievement-oriented, we want it to be perfect, and with our work ethic, we turn even fun things into work). Knowing the statistics about divorce only motivates us more: Naturally competitive, we want to beat the odds. On another level, though, I think egalitarianism plays a part in our approach to love, as many Americans revel in the ordinariness of their relationships and family life. This perspective can be summed up as “we don’t have a lot, but together we have everything we need.” You’ll hear this come through in some of the songs I’ve included below – especially Forever in Blue Jeans (which was one of my parents’ favorites during their early days), and Don’t Know Much which is just an all-around classic.

Compared to more passionate and relationship-oriented cultures, you could say we have less wooing and more co-creating, less dancing and more discussing, less spontaneity and more expectations (which may, in fact, be why the surprise of a gift on Valentine’s day comes as such a welcome delight for many, as a departure from the norm). There are generational, socioeconomic, racial and ethnic differences, of course, but broadly speaking, U.S. relationships are very much about finding the individual meant for you and then building a flawed but still perfect life together. Not every relationship meets the ideal, but the ideal is what motivates us – and that is rooted in our values. (And, despite my having asserted myself as a nonconformist a few paragraphs above, this ideal totally represents the outlook my husband and I share).

Want to see some proof? You can observe this idea of love across musical genres below. (I’ve intentionally picked some older songs so if you’re not from the US you can broaden your musical horizons. You’re welcome).

Forever and Ever, Amen (Randy Travis – Country)

When I Fall in Love (Nat King Cole – Jazz)

Be My Baby (The Ronettes – Motown)

I Got You, Babe (Sonny & Cher – Pop)

Forever in Blue Jeans (Neil Diamond – Pop/Rock)

Don’t Know Much (Linda Ronstadt & Aaron Neville – Pop)

Just Another Day in Paradise (Phil Vassar – Country)

First Day of My Life (Bright Eyes – Indie)

However you celebrate it, have a Happy Valentine’s Day! Two last words to the wise: If you have young kids in school, they will likely be exchanging valentines. Be sure to include one for each student in the class, as this is how it is typically done these days! And if you don’t feel like dealing with crowds, stay away from restaurants this weekend!

 

 

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