HOUSTON, TX – February may be the shortest month of the year, but it is certainly packed full with celebrations: Black History Month, Ground Hog Day, Heart Health Month, Wear Red Day, Super Bowl, Rodeo (in Houston), Lincoln’s birthday, Washington’s birthday (we used to get both days off from school), Presidents Day, Mardi Gras, Freedom Day, the less familiar National Pet Dental Health Month, the less widely celebrated Bird Feeding Month, and a host of even more idiosyncratic observances and celebrations.
Right smack in the middle of the month – literally – is Valentine’s Day. Figuratively, the holiday dominates beginning the day after Christmas. Candy canes, red and green M&Ms, marshmallow-Peep Santas all relegated to the bargain candy bin to make way for extravagant, gaudy red satin hearts, chocolate long-stemmed roses, and marshmallow-Peep cupids.
And the cards. Pick a relationship. Go ahead. The more obscure, unique, peculiar the better. There’s a card for it. Your faithful dog? Your indifferent cat? That bird you feed because the month says you should? There’s a card. Your grandmother or someone who’s been like a grandmother? Your boss? Your boss’s boss? The person you wish were your boss? There’s a card. Your child’s teacher’s aide? The principal? The letter carrier, police officer, firefighter, sanitation worker – pick a civil servant. There’s a card. All your exes – whether or not they live in Texas (thank you for that, George Strait), whether or not the split was amicable. There’s a card. Your priest or rabbi or imam. There’s a card. Well maybe not your imam – but there should be.
What do these cards say? What could they possibly express that bears any resemblance to the genesis of this holiday? Though we are celebrating our affection for the recipient of our cards, the holiday actually has pagan origins in fertility rituals. Lupercalia, celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. The Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then cut the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because they believed it would make them more fertile in the coming year. According to legend, later in the day, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each select a name and be paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers, he outlawed marriage for young men. Realizing the injustice of the decree, Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered his execution. Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first valentine greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine.” Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is unclear, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and romantic figure.
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, which probably occurred around 270AD, others claim that the Church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was outlawed at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day.
Not surprisingly, the day becomes associated with love in poetry. It is first mentioned in “The Parliament of Fowls,” a 14th century poem by Geoffrey Chaucer in which the birds gather to declare their love on February 14th. The oldest known valentine still in existence was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois. Even Ophelia mentions the day to Hamlet. By the 18th century, British aristocrats made elaborate Valentines decorated with lace, satin, ribbons and all manner of romantic prose and imagery.
We should not be surprised, then, that in the 1840s, a Massachusetts entrepreneur named Esther A. Howland recognized an opportunity to create and sell mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards for people who didn’t have the time or patience to glue lace and ribbons to highly personal love letters. Her business eventually grossed $100,000 a year, which, by 19th century standards, was a major success. Nevertheless, in February, 1847, the New York Daily Tribune lamented this commercialism: “There was a time when Valentine’s Day meant something…There was sweetness under its delicate shy disguise.”
So much for sentimentality. Hallmark produced its first Valentine in 1913 and began mass-producing them several years later. A multibillion-dollar industry was born. According to the National Retail Federation, “Modern Americans will spend $18.2 billion expressing their ardor by the end of Tuesday, or an average $136.57 per lover. That’s down a bit from last year, when rising consumer optimism caused Valentine’s Day spending to hit a record $19.7 billion. ‘This is one day of the year when millions find a way to show their loved ones they care regardless of their budget,’ said federation President Matthew Shay” (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 14).
So how much are you loved? How much do you love another? How much will you spend on flowers, jewelry, dinner, movies, clothes, candy, cards? How much will you contribute to that $18 billion?
It’s not that we shouldn’t celebrate the people we love. It’s that we shouldn’t make a business out of it. We shouldn’t need a reminder. We shouldn’t be one of how many anonymous others sending the same card to the person only we love.
Me? It’s Tuesday. We suffered through horrific storms and tornadoes this morning. I spent the day at home writing, and in the middle of everything, my special someone surprised me with hydrangeas, chocolates, and a kiss. Then he left me alone to finish this. That’s love.
Tonight, we’ll order pizza and watch This is Us.