With Valentine’s Day approaching faster than a FedEx shipment of free-range truffles, it’s time to ponder all the hoopla surrounding February 14 along with its mystical origins and some poignant questions such as these: What is love? How do we keep that feeling alive? And why don’t we get Valentine’s Day off, with complimentary Hershey’s Kisses?
First let’s consider love in its contemporary definition. Love is the natural impulse of life to appreciate, honor, cherish, and adore, while giving that special someone plenty of room to grow and live their dreams, even when they track snow on the carpet, hog the TV remote, and drop cracker crumbs all over the damn counter. And when two people love each other very, very much . . . oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s roll back the history on Valentine’s Day.
Once upon a time during the Roman Empire, back in 270 A.D., in the days before chocolate coffee beans or FTD, Emperor Claudius II required all young men to join the military. And to boost enrollment but not his popularity rating, he made it illegal to get engaged or married. Nicknamed by the stone tabloids as Claudius the Cruel, the Emperor was one of those guys who never received a valentine, not even in third grade when the whole school exchanged those tacky little cards that come in packs of 40.
Meanwhile, back at the Empire, young Roman men had little interest in joining the army, but they did have sweethearts, which is where our hero entered the story. Valentinus was a kind, Christian priest who opposed the Emperor’s harsh law by meeting secretly with young couples to ordain their marriages. Sadly, Claudius found out and arrested Valentinus, who accidentally must have waived his right to an attorney because he was executed—a detail rarely mentioned in those Roses are Red, Violets are Blue poems.
But today, every February 14, we honor this brave gentleman we never heard of by celebrating the people in our own lives who mean the most to us: our spouse, our mother, our teacher, our cell mate, etc. And as tokens of love, we exchange Hallmark greeting cards and little heart-shaped candies that say XOXO and Cutie Pie, and listen to songs by Barry White.
Throughout Europe and the American colonies, it became customary to choose a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day using simple mystical techniques. In 1700s England, for example, a woman wrote the names of men on pieces of paper and stuffed them in clay that she then tossed into the water, and the first name to surface was her true love. Another practice involved chanting while running through the cemetery in hopes of conjuring a vision of her mate. Alternatively, a woman could just sit by her window watching for the first available man to walk by, which we can only assume must have prompted men to route their travels cautiously. Today we’ve replaced these primitive superstitions with sophisticated methods of matchmaking online such as Cupid, Match, or FifthTimesACharm, where any man or woman can choose a life partner with confidence, based on an airbrushed photo bearing a fantasy profile.
Today, in 2015, Valentine’s Day has given birth to a squillion-dollar industry exploding with greeting cards, long-stemmed roses, and red construction paper, as well as weight-loss programs to neutralize the binge basket brimming with Belgian truffles, chocolate chip biscotti, Swiss mocha cocoa, pistachio marble fudge, salted-caramel chocolate sandwich spread, and a complimentary shot of insulin.
But in spite of commercial domination, February 14 remains the official day to exchange valentines, thanks to Esther Howland, a Massachusetts entrepreneur who mass-produced the first greeting cards in the 1870s. As a result, we are all legally required to send valentines to all of our sweethearts, relatives, 12-step sponsors, and everyone on our alimony list. And if you’re concerned about finding the perfect message, worry no more. In the old days, choices were limited to greetings like “True Love,” “Be My Valentine,” “I Love You Even When I’m Dating Other People.” But today, 2,000 companies are niche marketing their greeting cards to target your needs:
• Happy Valentine’s Day from your husband, your son, and your gerbil.
• Happy Valentine’s Day from your ex-wife and your ex-dog in your ex-condo.
• Happy Valentine’s Day from the redhead in the bar you promised to call but never did, maybe you lost my number, here it is again.
• And the popular New Jersey series, including “Be My Valentine and no one gets hurt.”
Happy Valentine’s Day.