An IPSOS survey of French adults in 2022 found that a significant proportion – over 60 percent – of French people believe Valentine’s Day is a “commercial holiday” and only approximately 36 percent of French people planned to mark the day. That number did rise for 41 percent for French people in relationships, however.
For the French people who do celebrate, the average gift budget in 2022 was €114 in total – which actually represented an increase of €12 when compared with 2021.
Compare this to the US where a Forbes survey found that 76 percent of Americans believed it was important to show love on Valentine’s Day, while CNBC reported that on average Americans planned to spend $193 on Valentine’s Day, and millennials budgeted for over $300.
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Some French people do like it, however. “I think the holiday is commercial but I still really like to celebrate it!” Michelle, a Frenchwoman who lives in Brittany, told The Local.
“I think that when you love and are loved, the celebration can be enjoyable because you get to experience a deep feeling of community with others, but when you aren’t in a loving relationship, you don’t care as much because it is all commercial”.
Amé S, aged 24, also said that she likes to celebrate Valentine’s Day. “For me, I know that there is no specific date to show your love, but I use this day to show it a little more”.
She added that she appreciates that “many bars organise events for singles to meet, and stores have sales on new arrivals and products in honour of the holiday. It’s a win-win situation”.
How do the French celebrate?
Camille Chevalier-Karfis, French language expert and head of the language-learning French Today website, who spent 17 years living in the United States, said that “French people celebrate Valentine’s Day with food”.
“People will try to go to a nice, romantic restaurant or cook a special meal at home”, explained Chevalier-Karfis.
The language expert added that in terms of gifts, the typical thing to offer is flowers: “Red roses are popular, but you can always choose a different type of flower too”.
“There is one big difference with the United States – in France, it is not very common to give chocolates on Valentine’s Day,” she clarified.
According to the IPSOS survey, almost half of French couples planning to mark the event planned to do so at home. A little over a third (35 percent) said they would go out to a restaurant, and almost a fifth (17 percent) had a “romantic weekend” planned.
For the ones who celebrate, Le Figaro reported in 2016 that the vast majority (99 percent) give some kind of gift.
Retailers are usually pretty keen on the day, however, and you will see Valentine’s promotions and decorations in shops and restaurants.
French florists see a boom in sales around Valentine’s Day – the 2015 FranceAgriMer report quoted the cut-flower industry, who said that “Valentine’s Day is undoubtedly the biggest day in the calendar”.
Jewellery stores and sellers also see a rise in sales around the lover’s day – according to Franceinfo, French jewellery brands typically see a boost of about 60 percent in sales when compared to the first quarter of the year thanks to Valentine’s Day.
One important thing to note is that in France, Valentine’s is for people in romantic/sexual relationships – it’s not traditional to use February 14th to celebrate your love for friends and family.
While the French attitude to February 14th is fairly typical in Europe, it can come as a surprise to Americans, who generally make much more of a big deal about Valentine’s Day.
“It was very difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that the most romantic city in the world couldn’t care less about Valentine’s Day!” Andrea Alvarez, American Paris resident, told The Local.
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“The only people here that seem to care are restaurants and jewellery stores. That’s simply because they realise that if they cater to tourists and expats, holidays like this are money makers”.
Another American living in France, Gyn Elle, told The Local. “My French husband doesn’t care about the holiday at all, but then again neither do I. From what I gather, it’s just an excuse for French people to have dinner out (not that they need an excuse when it comes to food)”.
Meanwhile, other Americans, like Laura Harlan, appreciate the difference in approach to Valentine’s Day.
“It’s commercialisation at it’s finest. I am glad it is not a French thing: you love all year, not just one day,” Harlan told The Local.
Meanwhile, French people living in the United States are also trying to come to terms with the different cultural expectations surrounding Valentine’s Day.
French Morning, a news and culture website for French people living in the United States, authored a piece trying to help explain to perplexed French residents understand the US attitude to Valentine’s.
Titled Pourquoi les enfants fêtent-ils la Saint-Valentin aux Etats-Unis ? (Why do children celebrate Valentine’s Day in the United States), French Morning seeks to explain to its readers that in France, Valentine’s Day is “far from reaching the proportions it has in the United States” and “remains the prerogative of couples”. In contrast, in the United States “children are the heart of the event”, a difference that “never ceases to amaze French families living in the United States”.
Chevalier-Karfis herself noticed a “huge difference between how Americans and French people celebrate” during her time in the United States. “In the US, Valentine’s Day is for everyone. My daughter, when she was just four years old, would give cards to all her classmates”, she said.
“In the US, it seems Valentine’s Day is about love in the general sense, whereas in France it is really the lovers’ day. You would not wish a Joyeuse Saint-Valentin to your baker (…) It is really about romantic love, period, in France”.
Who was Saint Valentine, anyway?
Saint Valentine was a clergyman born in present-day Italy around 226 who ministered to persecuted Christians and was martyred by the Romans for his faith, probably by being beheaded.
The anniversary of his execution – February 14th – was initially celebrated as a standard saints’ day. He became associated with romantic love in the 14th century, thanks in part to a poem called ‘Parliament of Foules’ by English author Geoffrey Chaucer.
He doesn’t just deal with lovers though – Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers and epilepsy and is believed to be able to help with fainting, the plague and travelling.