Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Yeah, um... Valentine's Day.

Ah... Valentine's Day. One more in a long list of consumerist scams- a boon for the U.S. Greeting Card Association. We are all supposed to trot out and buy candy or flowers for our girl, or (?) power tools for our boys. Inevitably a group of well-intentioned professionals is going to buy a plastic phallus with an attached electrical cord for one of their lonely co-workers. This happens every year in workplaces across the country, always eliciting the same round of uncomfortable laughs.

I always think about the many people who are either without romantic relationships, or mired in poor ones, and how they feel about this "holiday". It's a great day for these folks to feel sorry for themselves. The history of despair on this day starts for many in elementary school. Little kids make and decorate little shoeboxes to use as containers for the cute mini-greetings that their classmates make for the entire class. That's the best case scenario. This is supposed to be an occasion for every kid to feel special- which is at its core a silly proposition, since every kid is supposed to get a card from every one of the other students. If the children feel duty-bound to drop these notes, then they really have no meaning at all. And sometimes a particularly unpopular child will open up his/her little box to find quite a few missing from the expected total. Others will pry open the envelopes and find hastily scrawled scratchings that say much about how little regard was put into those wishes.

Of course the litany of pain continues through the initial break-ups we experience as we age. Often the wintry trials bring dissatisfaction, and one finds him/herself newly single on February 14th. Or even worse, relationships are artificially extended to meet the fateful date, and then terminated afterward in the wake of a box of stale chocolates. And the participants of these former couplings have missed out on the annual "Black Hearts" events at the bars, where bitter singles gather to choke down their bile with shooters and cheap beer.

True insight into Valentine's Day can be gleaned from a close examination of a festival of antiquity, celebrated on and about this date. On February 15, ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia. Noble youths would seize this opportunity to run wild and naked through the streets, striking the innocent bystanders with shaggy thongs (this, at least, is how Plutarch tells it). I 'm not sure what this meant for young lovers, but it doesn't sound like something that necessarily led to romantic bliss. The word "Lupercalia" obviously derives from the wolf, and it is an appropriate title because the day was meant to observe the she-wolf that suckled the founders of Rome. Traditionally, two goats and a dog were sacrificed in her honor. So maybe you should kill a dog for your loved one this year?

We could also look for meaning to the Catholic Saint in whose honor the holiday has been named. Pope Gelasius 1 designated February 14th as the feast of St. Valentine in 496 AD. There is a legend that (on the day before he was martyred) Valentine sent a love note to his jailer's daughter that was signed off with "From your Valentine". In that vein, perhaps we could celebrate his passing with the type of last meal he would have preferred... I'll let you readers work that out for yourselves.

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