A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
I don’t care how many Popes resign and, you can forget about your nuclear North Koreans, too; if you’re having a panic attack this morning, it’s because tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day. It doesn’t matter which side of the hearts and flowers you’re on; Valentine is a big deal. Once the exclusive province of teenagers and hopeless romantics, these days, he’s strictly uptown and bringin’ the bling. A simple “Roses are red; violets are blue” Hallmark moment just doesn’t cut it anymore, and most people are looking to De Beers or Alain Ducasse to demonstrate their depth of emotion. Sounds serious? It is. Recent studies have shown that Valentine’s Day is now right up there with St. Paddy’s and Hallowe’en on our festive calendar, with an anxiety rating that rivals Christmas. Do I have your attention?
It wasn’t always that way, though, St. Valentine himself is practically historically anonymous. We have no idea who he was, what he was and only the vaguest notion of when and where he was. In fact, chances are good he was at least three different people cobbled together by a fledgling church in need of some local celebrity. The story goes that while waiting for martyrdom he “miraculously” cured his jailer’s daughter`s blindness and wrote her a card (which she could then see) signed “Your Valentine.” It’s the stuff of legend but hardly provable. Today, Valentine is not on the A-list of Catholic saints, and his questionable relics are in a number of churches, scattered all over Europe. Actually, if it wasn’t for February 14th, most people wouldn’t pay much attention to the guy.
Our St. Valentine, the secular one that lovesick young people bankrupt themselves over, was born in the imagination of Geoffrey Chaucer. You remember Geoff, he`s the poet whose long and windy Canterbury Tales has been terrorizing undergrads for the last eight hundred years. Anyway, before Chaucer ever thought about Canterbury, he wrote something called The Parlement of Foules, which, at 700 lines, is a bit windy itself. In it, he sets the scene in a throwaway couplet referring to Seynt Volantynys Day (St. Valentine`s Day) as the day when birds gather to chose their mates. The idea caught on in medieval England (it’s where we get the birds and the bees metaphor from, as well.) The Christian martyr Valentine became hopelessly confused with the more robust and ribald Roman god Cupid, and by the time Billy Shakespeare was wearing the King’s doublet, Valentine’s Day was universally celebrated as the day when spring fever met courtly love.
For the next four centuries, Valentine’s Day lounged around as a once-a-year occasion to declare one’s love — usually in the form of a flowery verse or paper card. By our time, in the late the 20th century, it had been reduced to a harmless Victorian hangover. We gave out valentines promiscuously, more as greeting than anything else, but nobody minded. The day was reserved for school children and newly-minted couples who were busy ODing on simpy. Life was good.
Then, sometime in the late 1970s, when no one was looking, all hell broke loose. February 14th became the hottest date night of the year, and suddenly Valentine’s Day was the eater of souls. No credit card was safe. Dinner and a movie just wasn’t good enough anymore. Elegant dining was de rigueur with the appropriate price tag. Paper valentines had better have some jewelry attached, and even weekend trips and car keys were not out of the question. Lovers and wannabes were expected to fork out some serious cash as a measure their affection, and for thirty years, we’ve been upping that ante.
So, today, as you sit there wondering if tomorrow’s champagne and caviar, moonlight, hot air balloon ride is going to melt your lover’s heart, you need to understand one more thing. Statistically, more people commit adultery on February 15th than any other day of the year. If that doesn’t raise your anxiety level, I don’t know what will.