It’s Valentine’s Day, and there’s a conspicuous lack of commercialized cheer here in Lyon. No excessive advertisements claiming to know the best way to convince your significant other that you really do love them. No extravagant displays of red-boxed chocolates in the grocery store. No aisle of celebrity-branded cards, no over-the-top and overpriced bouquets. A handful of stores—mostly chocolatiers—have themed displays in their windows, but for the most part it’s business as usual here. And it’s kind of weird.
It’s not that the French don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day. The holiday is a busy one for restaurants here in France, and supposedly the first valentine was sent by a Frenchman imprisoned in the Tower of London. And of course, there’s the old tradition of “une loterie d’amour,” now banned by the French government:
Unmarried people gathered in houses facing each other and called the name of their chosen partner through the windows. It all seemed very romantic, but the charm was spoilt when the man decided his choice didn’t come up to scratch and proceeded to desert his Valentine. Naturally, the women retaliated and the custom developed of building a huge bonfire where they burnt the image of the now hated male while yelling abuse.
(Fun as that sounds, I’ll recommend against doing it. I’m pretty sure Rachel, Phoebe, and Monica nearly burnt down the apartment doing that in an episode of Friends.)
So the French have their traditions, but they seem to have largely avoided the commercialization of the holiday that we have in the States. And it’s not just Valentine’s Day—even at Christmas, though there was certainly plenty of gift-buying and gift-selling going on, it was less aggressive than back home.
In a way, that’s nice. These holidays are supposed to be about people, not things. They’re supposed to be about showing that you love someone, and let’s be real: a last-minute card from Safeway with “Love you!” scribbled inside doesn’t say anything more than “I thought of you briefly while I was at the store and I like you enough to spend four bucks on you.” Thanks, bro.
But having grown up with certain traditions—shopping for Christmas decorations at Target, giving valentines (even cheesy cartoon ones) to friends and loved ones—it’s strange to be away from them. My family’s holidays have always been a strange mix of mass-produced and made-with-love: last year, I sent my sister a box packed with shredded Justin Bieber cards; the year before, I got a package from my mom filled with Butterfinger hearts and trinkets that was so perfect it made me cry. Those things are missing this year.
I guess no matter how much we complain about Hallmark holidays, they’re a part of our culture. I’m not saying that the level of commercialization in the US is necessarily a good thing, but sometimes you just want a bag of heart-shaped chocolates. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
This piece is cross-posted on the Georgetown Study Abroad Blog, where you can read about the experiences of Georgetown students studying across the globe.