02/11/2012 10:27 EST | Updated 04/12/2012 05:12 EDT

The Beginner's Guide to Valentine's Day

"Why," my boyfriend wondered, "would we celebrate Valentine's Day? I love you every day. I don't need some Hallmark holiday to show my love."

I stared at him. He was right, of course: the guy is thoughtful, generous, loving and kind every day of the year. But his reticence about V-Day still bothered me a little because if he was comfortable showing his love for me, why couldn't he do it on the day that's traditionally set aside for doing just that?

Few holidays inspire the mixed reaction of Valentine's Day. Some folks think it's the most romantic time of the year -- a day of of chocolates, gifts and flowers. Others pooh-pooh Feb. 14. If you're single, it can be stressful to watch couples get moony with their love together; if you're with someone, panic sets in as you search for the perfect token of your affection. Little kids get angsty over the classroom Valentine exchange and adults treat it as a barometer that measures the health of their love life. It becomes easy to get lost in the red-and-pink fog. Valentine's panic isn't uncommon, so sidestep the messes by keeping a sense of humour and planning ahead.

Talk about expectations. Some folks don't celebrate Valentine's Day, or keep it very low-key. If you're expecting dozens of roses, jewellery, a fancy dinner, a sexy lingerie show, or nothing at all, mention it. People can't read your mind and it's a much nicer day when everyone's on the same page.

Don't leave it until the last minute. If you're thinking about going out for a romantic meal, lock down your table well in advance. Some kitchens manage the crunch by sticking with a fixed menu; call ahead to ensure that your favourite dishes will be on offer. Order flowers and buy cards the week before, and be flexible. Flower shops, restaurants, jewellery stores, and other Valentine's-related vendors and venues experience a spike in demand around Feb. 14 and there's nothing worse than a romantic I.O.U. given with a sheepish grin. Things sell out and time is finite.

Be wary of the hype. Advertisers put a lot of pressure on Valentine's Day and it's become a convenient post-Christmas sales boost for jewellery merchants and stationary stores. There are plenty of ways to show affection that don't require a big financial layout, so if you're celebrating, don't feel like a trip the mall is obligatory.

I remember feeling pretty ambivalent towards Valentine's Day when I was a kid. Do I have to get cards for the whole class? What do I write? What if I have actually have a crush on someone?! Horrors. Just like adults, children often find mass declarations of love unsettling. Your kids can write personalized notes to their friends and everyone will be fine with "I'm glad you're in my class" or a short-but sweet compliment. Graciousness is the name of the game, so remind them to thank classmates for Valentines and distribute theirs to everyone.

If you're in a happy relationship, take pleasure in your time together. Celebrate! Even if things aren't perfect, or your relationship is too new for declarations of love, take a moment to tell your partner that you're glad they're in your life. It's a sentiment that needs no accompanying gift or card and is a sweet way to express your feelings.

If you're single, you can relish playing the field, or be glad you're not in a lousy relationship. Don't feel like it's necessary to hook up with someone just so you're not dateless on the 14th -- hit the gym, watch a movie, organize an night out with your other single friends. Resist the urge to take the day seriously and instead, filter it through a light-hearted attitude.

No matter what your romantic situation, there's always something to smile about. Valentine's Day is once a year, but the sentiment -- love is nice! -- is a year-round kind of thing. My boyfriend and I eventually decided to compromise: we celebrate other anniversaries instead of Valentine's Day and tell each other "I love you" no matter what day it is.


Single on Valentine's Day