February, forever short on days even in a leap year, compensates by being long on sweet excesses in the romance department. Never mind the icy chill in the air outside or the dirty snowbanks lining the streets. Inside, all is steamy warmth as merchants gear up for Valentine's Day.
Flower shops burst with fragrant blossoms, including long-stemmed roses priced in the stratosphere. Jewelers trot out every heart-shaped pendant in the vault. Chocolatiers offer heart-shaped boxes topped with silk roses. Even bookstores dust off collections of love poems to display on the front table.
Then there are the card shops, spilling over with rows of red hearts and gushing terms of endearment: ''For my darling wife.'' ''For my hero, my husband.'' ''To my lifetime love.'' Only the cards bellowing ''Hey, Hubby!'' break the romantic mood.
Part schmaltz, part shameless commercial hucksterism, part genuine sentiment, Valentine's Day is an occasion cynics love to hate. But for hopeless romantics, it's a day when flattery will get you everywhere and when the dream of perfect love still springs eternal. It's also an annual reminder that in an age of despair over the short-term nature of many supposedly long-term relationships, love needs all the encouragement it can get.
From personal ads in newspapers and magazines to the Dating Channel on cable TV, never have once-private yearnings for love gone so public. Few ad-writers dare use the M word - marriage - probably on the assumption that it could scare off potential dates. Instead, they list more-modest goals: ''seeking serious relationship,'' ''looking for friendship, possible relationship,'' ''seeks commitment,'' ''wants enduring romance,'' ''wishes long-term partnership.''
By whatever code name, enduring romance, commitment, and long-term partnership - traditionally known as marriage in many circles - may, in fact, be the resurgent mood of the mid-'90s. Consider a few hopeful signs:
After decades of tolerance for anything-goes family configurations, culture-watchers across the political spectrum are once again emphasizing the centrality of marriage and monogamy to a stable society. Even the new urgency to reduce out-of-wedlock births encourages the ideal of marriage and two-parent families.
Then there's the immense popularity of Jane Austen novels in current films and TV productions. Austen's plots center around relationships and character, offering the appeal of romance with restraint. Who ever said that courtship and social graces were hopelessly passe? Even in some contemporary films, the obligatory bedroom scene is giving way to the subtler drama of courtship. And in ''Bridges of Madison County,'' marriage is sustained despite an adulterous fling.
These cultural shifts, however modest, come not a moment too soon. When talk shows trumpet domestic dysfunction and when even princesses discuss their infidelities on global television - watch those ratings soar! - matrimony seems more fragile and disposable than ever.
Younger generations in particular need all the reassurance they can get that romance and love and long-term marriage remain possible. So gloomy has the prospect of marriage become that marriage and family classes in some high schools now begin with a trip to divorce court. The session delivers an unmistakable message to students: Choose carefully, or this could happen to you. Many already know that, of course, after watching their own parents divorce. But taking marriage seriously doesn't have to mean constant counseling sessions and grim seminars. Love, after all, is the happiest of states.
Although it will take more than heart-shaped chocolates, perfect roses, and lace-covered cards to restore marital stability on a broad scale, what better time than Valentine's Day to celebrate the reviving culture of romance in all the new and ancient ways possible, from candlelight and slow-dancing to faxed poems and love songs on the World Wide Web.