What’s love got to do with it? Plenty, it seems, for centuries
Last week I was reminded that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. I made it rather far into February considering I live in America, where it seems to be the rule that we are given 60-plus days’ notice that any holiday is approaching. I was looking for cinnamon bears at the local pharmacy when I stumbled into a barricade of heart-shaped boxes full of bonbons. After a month of breakups for my roommate and myself, the wall of “I Love You” in gold foil across red cardboard made me blanch and flee with Goobers instead.
Since noting V-Day’s imminent arrival, I have been besieged by e-mail campaigns by a gift retailer with slogans such as “You never knew you could be so romantic.” Whenever I pull up the Yahoo! search engine, I cannot help but read random facts on the sidebar: “Three percent of all Americans give Valentines to their pets.” I laugh at the thought of these people at the pet store purchasing bones with red bows.
I have reveled in many a Valentine’s Day, and I have survived about as many being single. This year, however, seems to be different. Even my roommate will be absent, vacationing in Hong Kong, and I am to be left alone with my ever-yowling Siamese cat. I feel somewhat secure with my solitude, even if no one is going to be giving me chocolates. I tell myself Valentine’s Day is too silly a holiday for me to truly feel lonely. I mean, where did this concept of celebrating love one day a year even come from? Can I say it is a silly Roman festival gone wrong through merchandising? Maybe I am just wistful that there isn’t anyone to give a Valentine to …
Looking at all the advertising for romantic gifts, my reaction could be to grump and spout about the overcommercialization of holidays in 21st century society. But the things so many retailers and e-tailers are pandering to the lovers and loved these days have been part of the holiday for more centuries than I can shake my post-Gen-X cynicism at. HolidaySpot.com says that Valentine gifts involving lace and chocolate have been popular in the Western world since the Victorian era. The oldest Valentine recorded is displayed at the British Museum. It was written by Charles d’Orleans in 1415. I cannot say that the marketing department at Hallmark had much to do with that one.
I am reeled in by the tales behind Valentine’s Day. In 270 A.D., when Roman Emperor Claudius II issued an edict forbidding marriage, thinking a society of single young men would make better soldiers, St.Valentine performed secret marriages for the young lovers of Rome. According to the History Channel’s Valentine Exhibit on the Web, these secret ceremonies were why Claudius II arrested Valentine. The first Valentine’s card was possibly a love letter by St.Valentine to the daughter of his jailer, the day of his execution, signed, “From your Valentine.”
As a woman who considers the film “Run, Lola, Run” to be the pinnacle of modern romance I should know better than to swoon at this. But it does make me covet a card with even a shadow of the sentiment Valentine put into his card.
I come from a generation congenitally aware of the vagaries of marketing, and most of the people I know feel that Valentine’s Day is plugged as just another reason to buy more, watered down by mercantilists from its origin of love. Yet even in 498 A.D., the Catholic Church felt the need to officially announce it as a lover’s holiday heralded by gifts and proclamations of affection. Do we just not appreciate love on a daily basis and need a day above all others to remind us? There are too many romantic comedies and country songs out there to let me say yes. It this just a good excuse for the shy or unassuming to put forth feelings they otherwise would not occasion? I recall slipping more candy into the Valentine of my fifth-grade crush than I did into the rest of my classmates’. The envelope bulged with Necco Conversation Hearts to a point where I could not fit it through the slot of the pink construction-paper mailbox on his desk.
After chatting up friends and colleagues, I have decided the essence of the holiday lies in what we make of it. If it takes a special day to make someone do more than the ordinary for the person he or she is with, then so be it. I would like to say that I don’t care that I will not be getting any cards or candy. But I know that this year I will pause a moment before I check my mailbox as I come to work on the 14th, and I will find only W-2 forms or catalogues. Then I will go inside bearing catnip with a big red bow to be one of the 3 percent of Americans crazy enough to give a valentine to her beloved pet.
Caitlin Steele grew up in Nevada City and left only recently to pursue graduate school in Boston.
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