I can think of a few holidays I adore: Rosh Hashanah—for me, not just a dry run for the changing of the year but a day of peaceful bread kneading and self-reflection; Halloween—the crazy costumes, the school dances; and my birthday still rocks after forty-[inaudible mumbling] of them. But Valentine’s Day?
First, let’s dispense with the myth that this is an invented, á la Hallmark, holiday. The greeting card company turned 100 on January 10th, but Shakespeare was waaaaay older. Consider this:
To-morrow is St. Valentine’s Day.
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.
So sings the grief-stricken Ophelia shortly after Hamlet murders her dad, Polonius. I’m not quite sure what she meant by her cryptic song (she’s crazy, after all), but I do know this: Mr. Hallmark could have had nothing to do with the holiday known around these parts as “Valentimes, Hon!”
The legends of the love holiday’s origin are many and varied, but I like this one. Valentine was a priest in Rome in about 270 AD, when Christianity was not nearly as popular as it is now. In fact, he was jailed for it. On February 14th, when all attempts to make the priest renounce his faith had proved fruitless, Valentine was beaten with clubs and then beheaded. (You can see why I like it!)
So what’s love got to do, got to do with it? Coincidentally, February 14th was already a day associated with the mating of birds. The priest’s martyrdom merely provided a name for the annual celebration of avian booty.
Before Valentines were written (few peasants could read and write), they were sung. Perhaps to make his time of imprisonment move Allegrissimo in the Tower of London, Charles, Duke of Orleans (a Frenchman, naturellement), wrote down his song, giving birth to the first recorded Valentine’s day greeting in 1415.
Hundreds of years passed without any revolution in the love industry until 1847, when a Massachusetts woman named Esther Howland received her first decorated card from England. The Martha Stewart of her day, Howland began making her own lacy cards to sell in her father’s shop—an idea so successful that she earned almost $100,000 a year in the greeting card business!
While Valentine’s Day is not as old as Christmas, it’s been celebrated on this day for more than 1,700 years—longer than your birthday or your wedding anniversary. So why, on February 13th, is your husband ill-prepared to express his love in verse, with a side of flowers and chocolate?
Though my father has flowers delivered or hands my sister, my mother, and me a certificate for a spa day every year, I can’t recall the last time I got a Valentine from my husband, who knows how much I love 70% cocoa and Gerbera daisies but who, in 1997, got me a book of poems by Ogden Nash. Yes, Ogden “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker” Nash. Hardly a romantic gift. But we have other romantic days to celebrate, like the anniversary of our first date, December 16th, 1982, otherwise known as End All Rats Day (so named because the rats used in a Halloween display in the hippie mansion where we lived had found freedom and had to be eradicated by exterminator, December 16, 1980).
I still have that funny poetry book, and it still makes me laugh. I still have the man, too, and he still makes me laugh. Even after twenty-seven years. And this year, for Valentine’s Day, he learned a song to serenade me. He’s singing it now.