Saturday is Valentine’s Day, or, as some call it, “Singles’ Awareness Day.” If you’re a guy and you haven’t bought a gift yet, I suggest you put this column down ASAP and head over to See’s Candy or Victoria’s Secret. (What was Victoria’s big secret, anyway?)
Valentine’s Day has never been among my favorite holidays, going back to grade school. All the kids exchanged cards, which was actually stressful because the number of cards were a barometer of how popular you were. And the more popular you were, the more likely you’d wind up a sociopath. Whoops. Sorry, for a minute I was thinking about O.J.Simpson.
After school, you took your cards home to your parents, I suppose to prove you weren’t a loser. I felt badly for the kids who didn’t get any cards. I always received a fair number, though almost never from the girl from whom I wanted one. They say that’s why people write novels and love songs. Maybe even a column or two.
Historians claim Valentine’s Day goes back to 270 A.D. (And here I thought Hallmark invented it.) Roman Emperor Claudius II took his country to a bloody, corrupt and unpopular war. Hmm. That sounds disturbingly familiar. Actually, for years here in this column I’ve been trying to draw a parallel between the fall of the Roman Empire and potential fall of ours. It turns out all I had to do was research Valentine’s Day.
They called him “Claudius the Cruel.”(A coincidence because I called Bush “George the Fool.”) Anyway, Claudius was having trouble getting soldiers to join his military. Believing that Roman men did not want to leave their loves or families, he arbitrarily prohibited all engagements and marriages. This might have worked for a while (though a little tough on divorce lawyers) were it not for a certain Saint Valentine.
Saint Valentine was a Roman priest who protested Claudius’ plan by secretly marrying couples. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t stay secret for very long because on the 14th day of February Saint Valentine was beheaded. (I hear that can smart.). This particular theory about the origin of St. Valentine’s Day, isn’t quite as cuddly as I was hoping for. Oh well.
Here in America, Miss Esther Howland (1828-1904) is given credit (or blame) for sending the first valentine cards. Esther was an artist and soon-to-become businesswoman. In 1847, at 19, she received an ornate English Valentine from an associate of her father. From this she created and marketed her own Valentine’s Day greeting cards. (Apparently giving her father’s associate the royal shaft.)
Esther soon employed friends and developed a thriving card business. The company was so prosperous that she eventually sold it in 1881 to open a chain of Chippendale’s Male Stripper Nightclubs. (Okay, I made the Chippendale’s part up.)
From that point there was no stopping Valentine’s Day until now when it represents the most money spent on gifts other than Christmas. (How heartwarming.) Also of curious note, according to consumer surveys, men spend more than twice as much money as women do on Valentine’s Day, signifying, to me at least, a desperate attempt on our part to stay out of the doghouse. The whole holiday has that aura about it when we all know it’s just not possible.
Considerably more charming are the romantic customs of Valentine’s Day around the world. In Wales, wooden love spoons were carved and given as gifts. Hearts, keys and keyholes were favorite decorations on the spoons. The decoration meant, “You unlock my heart!” Today if you gave a girl a wooden spoon, she might hit you with it.
In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to find their valentine. They would wear these names on their sleeves for one week, hence the expression “To wear your heart on your sleeve.” In some countries, a young woman may receive a gift of clothing from a young man. If she keeps the gift, it means she will marry him. If she takes it back for a cash refund, well, it’s not a very good sign.
Some cultures believed that if a woman saw a robin flying on Valentine’s Day, she would marry a sailor; if she saw a sparrow, she would marry a poor man; while if she saw a goldfinch, she would marry a millionaire. (Perhaps explaining the shortage of goldfinches.)
Another custom was that, as a girl twisted the stem of an apple, she would recite the names of her suitors. The theory was that you will marry the person whose name you were saying when the stem fell off. (Unless, of course, you’re gay in California, in which case you’re outta luck.) Happy Valentine’s, everybody! Or, as in my case, Happy Singles’ Awareness Day!
Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.