I'm sentimental about puppy licks, a baby's teeny little feet, the scent in the air before the first snow, It's a Wonderful Life, and the first crocus of Spring. I have to say, though, Valentine's Day leaves me cold.
It's a fabricated holiday with no idea of what is being celebrated and no idea of it origins ~ we'll address Hallmark later. St. Valentine could be any of a half dozen Christian martyrs whom the early church recruited to bless pagan fertility festivals. Of the top candidates, the best known is a priest named Valentinus, who was beheaded by Emperor Claudius the Cruel on February 14, 269 AD.
Layers of legend are stacked upon slim evidence that Valentinus performed secret weddings after Claudius banned marriage to prevent soldiers from deserting his armies. Or that Valentinus refused to deny Christ and so was thrown in prison where he healed the jailer's blind daughter, fell in love with her, and left a note for her in the cracks of the wall of his cell before his execution, "From your Valentin.''
Martyrdom may be admirable in a saint ~ but it is an anathema in a relationship in which generosity demands payment through guilt. The celebration that once supported the belief that the first person you spotted on the morning of Feb. 14 would be your mate for life doesn't say much for romance.
Over the years Valentine became the patron saint of engaged couples and happy marriages, but also of beekeepers and, of course, greeting-card manufacturers. Does this mean 'Love' comes with a sting? It certainly comes with a price tag as the holiday is ramped up each year.
At an early age children are expected to bring a valentine for every classmate, declaring liarly love and affection for each and all. Unlike the days of our youth, when teachers would collect the cards in a big doilly decorated box and call out names one by one, giving a public accounting of exactly how many friends each child actually had. Darwinian devastastion ruled. Tipping the scale in the other direction is the idea of children celebrating a holiday that shimmies into view wearing a naughty nightie and edible underwear.
I guess we can't ignore the huge commercial stakes: "The tradition of sending and receiving classroom valentines is often a child's first experience with greeting cards" ~ observed by American Greetings, which owns a $1.8+ billion dollar piece of the social expression industry. How's THAT for an introduction to Hallmark?
A billion cards are sent every year, second only to Christmas, and 85% of them by women (what's wrong with this picture?) For this we can thank Esther Howland, an entrepreneurial 1847 Mount Holyoke grad, whose father owned a stationery store. She came up with the idea of mass-producing "valentine cards" to amp up mid-winter stationary sales. Esther was a great saleswoman and although she never married, she did get very rich. Go Esther!
The Howland family operated the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts. As a student at The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Esther received an elaborate English Valentine from one of her fathers' business associates and was confident she was capable of making better ones.
She convinced her father to order lace paper and other supplies from England and New York City and made a dozen samples. Recruiting friends and creating her now-famous assembly line, her business was born. Advertising and word-of-mouth, assured this ingenious woman a place in history. Her beautifully crafted valentines were known from Maine to California, and today's collectors recognize them for their characteristic refinement and detail. Unfortunately, the craft and design of a beautiful card warped into what we currently have been duped into celebrating ~ absent Esther's artful approach and broad expression of love to friends and family.
Sadly, Valentine's Day only pretends to celebrate what we like about love. It has morphed into something dutiful. Romance comes unscheduled and is a bit unruly, "a madness most discreet," quoth Romeo. As it ripens into devotion, "still it improvises a favor rendered, a sudden kiss, a private joke, flowers for affection". Its expression is the very opposite of the fretful, "pre-order now, or be left with drugstore chocolates" connivances that the card selling, floral marketing, chocolate hawking day promotes.
For those who are well loved, and who love well, every day is a celebration of St. Valentine. Funny and loving notes, flowers, intimate touches, and completing chores for a surprised beloved are the daily acts that celebrate the message of Valentinus. For the rest, no card can console. (Unless someone sends me one of Esther's originals ~ I'm a collector, surprise).
Unfortunately, this is why the holiday lends itself so nicely to ridicule. Valentine's Day has inspired its own insurgency. There's Singles Awareness Day, in which the unattached celebrate their solitude with a sporting acronymic greeting, 'Happy SAD day', and Galentines Day, where women get together and celebrate galpal friendships. All in all, it is a falsely reminiscent day that was meant to celebrate what needs to be part of every day loving ~ consideration, doing for one another, anticipating needs, and giving (flowers and wine and chocolates and babysitters and dinners at the duck pond, if that's what floats your boat).
In truth, a holiday that triggers guerrilla opposition should give us all pause. "Finding the right Valentine's Day gift is probably the most difficult shopping experience in any man's life," warns AskMen.com which notes that unlike Christmas or birthday presents, these gifts reflect not only taste and affection "but your degree of commitment as well." Experts argue over subtexts: Is giving lingerie a turn-on or just tacky? Restaurants sweeten the menu and hike the prices. You can buy a heart-shaped potato on eBay or a "I (heart) You" pin from Tiffany. They each come in a special box tied with a saucy ribbon that is supposed to say "I love you'.
There's nothing wrong, of course, with delighting in love and honoring friendship and stopping in the bleak midwinter to tickle the people we love. But it's also a good sign of psychosocial health if the day just saunters by and winks. The minute it feels like a duty, it has lost its purpose. Spreading the spirit of Valentinus throughout the year sounds pretty Christmasy to me, but the idea is the same. Do for others as you would have them do for you ~ and you do it first, every day.
"Love sought is good. but given unsought is better." ~ Shakespeare