Posted by: Sarah | February 6, 2010

Will you be my Valentine: A loaded question

Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us, and I swear to the stars, if I see one more cornball image of flittering doves, I may go out, shoot a pair, and roast them for dinner (ethically and sustainably, of course, of course).

Let me preface this post by saying I just returned from the grocery store where the onslaught of Valentine’s products nearly pecked both my eyes out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no curmudgeon. I get that this February holiday is a celebration of l-eee-ove (insert eyelash bat). But honestly, when did the adult population get so sappy. Let the elementary school kids pass round candy and friendship cards; let the high schoolers and tweens buy each other red carnations and chocolate roses. Bless their little hearts. But I’ve recently (an hour ago I was pushing my shopping cart past) witnessed a trend in adults completely swept up in the commercial Valentine’s whirlwind.

Case in point: A man, well into his forties, debating with his daughter whether he should buy his wife the Twilight “Forbidden Fruits” conversation hearts or the vampire bitten chocolates with oozing cherry cordial. The daughter looked as painfully annoyed as I felt. “Why don’t you get her flowers,” she offered. Okay, you know there’s a problem when a ten year old is giving the prudent advice… and it is ignored. Had this been the off example, I may have chuckled, shook my head and thought, what an oddball. But no, my friends. The aisles were packed with adults, and they weren’t shopping for cards for their kiddie’s school swap.

Go to your local store as a casual observer. Or better yet, turn on your TV. Have you seen the Jared’s jewelry ads? You’d think if you didn’t bling-bling your spouse (male and female) on the big V-day you might as well not have gotten them a wedding band either. Then there’s the flower production: red roses, red, roses, red roses. It calls to mind the Stephen King miniseries. And I’ve already mentioned that every manufacturer on earth has decided to get a piece of the Valentine’s booty (money, I’m talking). There’s enough pink candy to make Willy Wonka’s head spin, tacky plush toys, clothing and cupcakes, chocolates and cupid costumes for infants and pets! Of course then you have the cards. Perhaps it’s my affinity for words that makes them the least offensive. There’s centuries-old history there, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit one or two made me tear up.

Understand, there’s a fine, fine line between poignant and schmaltzy. Definition of schmaltzy: “Tra la-la la-la, Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to show all those around how thankful you are to be loved by them and to love them because life is a precious gift, I love you, I love you, I love you, so I’m baking you a pink icing pink cupcake with lots of hugs and kisses inside, tra la-la la-la.” Cue the sprinkling of Wal-Mart heart confetti.

This is adorable in a five year old, but a grown adult? Seriously. Does anyone else find it a bit depressing that we need an official winter holiday to remember the attributes of love? I don’t claim to be the Martha Stewart on Fine Living, but I think thankfulness and compassion should be the status quo. After a good supper when I turn to my husband and say, “I love you,” it matters little if it it’s February14, March 14 or April 14.

Like many other holidays, maybe we’ve lost something in translation. So I went on a hunt for the origins of Saint Valentine. According to the Roman Catholic Church, there are three:

1) Valentine of Rome was a Roman priest martyred in AD 269.

2) Valentine of Terni, a bishop in AD 197, also martyred.

3) The Valentine associated with February 14 was a priest in Africa and guess what? You got it! Martyred.

I don’t know about you, but it gives a whole new spin to, “Will you be my Valentine?”

Those are the facts. But facts and figures are easily forgotten. Alone, they don’t inspire celebration unless they have a story. Not even our treasured 4th of July would be what it is if we didn’t have the tale of Francis Scott Key watching the ‘bombs bursting in air’ and our American forefathers signing our Declaration into infamy.

Enter Legenda Aurea, the Golden Legend, a 1260 bestseller by Jacobus de Voragine. Here, he penned the fictitious lore of Valentine. As the story goes, Valentine was a priest who refused to abide by the Roman law prohibiting young man from marrying. Emperor Claudius II believed marriage made men weak, so in an effort to increase his army strength, he forbade soldiers from taking wives. Priest Valentine defied Claudius by performing secret marriages. Claudius found out and arrested him. Voragine’s story ends there. Oh, but centuries of readers were not content, and a new ending was fabricated. On the eve of the priest’s execution, he wrote the first ‘valentine’ to his beloved, the jailer’s daughter whom he’d befriended and healed of blindness. The final note read, “From your Valentine.”

Take a moment. Pass around the tissues if you must.

But where, you ask, are the drippy candles, lovebirds, and negligees? Again, the storytellers molded our current perspective. Chaucer is credited with the first romantic Valentine’s poem in Parliament of Foules. Though scholars argue that the poem was misinterpreted amorously, the floodgates had been opened and everyone from Shakespeare to Gary Marshall (film director of the current blockbuster “Valentine’s Day”) has since dipped his/her pen. Each story adds a new facet to the holiday. Another fairytale to read and dream on, no matter how unrealistic it may be. (Again, I reference Twilight.)

In light of all this and to combat all the mawkishness, I thought it befitting to offer my suggestion for a truly Saint Valentine-worthy narrative. You want to read about love, pick up A Little Love Story by Roland Merullo. I’m sighing just typing the title.

I hope I don’t come off cynical or anti-romantic. I’m quite the opposite! I’ve been called both a hopeless romantic and a Pollyanna; but when you dress optimism up like a circus clown and make it do cheap tricks, it loses its silver lining. Same goes for love. There’s something to be said for subtlety. Frankly, “love” is absurdly overused in this day and age. We toss it around so liberally that, like the origins of Saint Valentine, the depth of meaning is lost.

I’m headed to Park City to do a little skiing with my husband and close couple friends next weekend. There may be a dinner by a roaring fire involved, there may not. Either way, I’m excited. The fact that it’s Valentine’s Day… well, that’s nice, but it could be St. Cup O’Hot Cocoa Day for all we care. The love would be exactly the same.

Yours truly, Sarah

P.S. And don’t tempt me on the dove au jus. Years ago I heard an NPR special on former French President Francois Mitterrand’s last meal consisting of a rare, illegal dish called Ortolan, a bird the size of a thumb. I don’t know if it was the recipe or the sensuous French way it was described, but I never forgot. My mouth still waters. Sorry, PETA. I don’t feel too terrible about my sinful desire for bird cassoulet. Have you heard of Balut? It’s a boiled chicken fetus. Uh-huh. Wings and beak and all. My husband ate it in the Philippines. That’s a whole other post. I haven’t the stomach to get into it so I hope these links suffice.


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