In Kay Jewelers commercials and Hallmark cards, Valentine's Day is perfect. It's full of chocolate-covered strawberries, glistening roses and enough romance to melt the abominable snowman's heart.
But perfect doesn't always go as planned. After the great Valentine's fiasco of 2003 that left Dave, my then boyfriend, with a bloody nose wandering a mall and me freezing to death in front of a restaurant, we've been eating at Wendy's every year. We love the tradition so much that once we got married, we started going to Wendy's for our anniversary as well.
As Cupid's visit approaches, couples inevitably feel pressure to make the day unforgettable, but creating a memory can be costly. According to the National Retail Federation, the average couple will spend $102.50 making their sweetheart feel special this Valentine's Day — down 17 percent from last year, but still a good chunk of change. With emotions, expectations and costs running so high, it's no wonder that some people eschew the holiday all together. Often, though, the most significant moments in a relationship come when people stop thinking with their wallets.
Reservations at White Castle, my princess?Lexi Robinson-Hotchkiss, 27, and her husband Keith, 31, never bought into the idea of Valentine's Day. "From the get-go Keith and I decided to just say the heck with it," said Robinson-Hotchkiss. "Our first year of dating, he took me to the local Red Lobster. Oh, my friends were appalled! They couldn't believe I would stick around with a guy who took me there. It was great, though! We had such a good time at dinner, no pressure." That started their yearly pilgrimage to low-cost restaurants. The next year they went to Pizza Hut, the year after they went to an all-you-can-eat buffet, and this year they plan on heading over to White Castle, which, you may want to know, accepts reservations for V-Day.
Other people's annual celebrations develop out of unromantic circumstances. On their first Valentine's Day as a married couple, Robyn Bloom, 49, and her husband found themselves without reservations. "We went to one of the better steakhouses in the area, only to find a three-hour wait," recalled Bloom. They drove around until they finally stopped at Denny's, thinking no one would eat at a cheap diner on a day associated with three-course meals and fancy silverware. As they walked up to the entrance they noticed a sign on the door: "Sorry we're out of meat." Bloom and her husband ended up at IHOP, where they were the only ones there under 65. In a situation that would have made Casanova cringe, Bloom was able to laugh. She and her husband have been honoring the day of love at IHOP for 19 years.
Merci Miglino's Valentine's Day routine started when her then-boyfriend did the unexpected: He cooked. An HVAC mechanic who "is decidedly non-domestic," the newly minted Martha met Miglino at the door with a heart-shaped meatloaf. Eventually the two married and, says the 54-year-old, "We make this meal every Valentine's Day and my daughter has continued the tradition with her boyfriends as well."
Oh, Valentine's tree ...But not all quirky customs involve food. When she was in college, Franca Gargiulo, 46, and her single friends didn't want to be alone on February 14. Together they decorated a small Christmas tree with scraps of material and paper hearts. Twenty-five years later Gargiulo continues this practice with her husband.
"Over the years," says Gargiulo, "I have taken scraps from various garments — wedding dress, flannel pajamas, a sentimental tie that belonged to my father — and we make little heart ornaments out of them. It's corny, but always lots of fun and like Christmas tree decorations, [they] bring back so many memories."
Over-the-top expectations for Valentine's Day can leave couples feeling disappointed. A mass-produced diamond pendant is nice, but it's not unique. Unconventional traditions celebrate love by being different and meaningful, even if that meaning comes in a heart-shaped pound of ground beef. I wouldn't trade my yearly Wendy's for any $102.50 meal, because it reminds me that when our plans turn into a bloody debacle, my husband and I can just laugh and pick up a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. And for us, that's real romance.