Valentine’s Day is out of control. It’s been around at least since the 1800s and, like most festivals that have been around for a long time, it has lost its original focus.
Valentine’s Day began as a special day for lovers, would-be lovers, and sometimes ex-lovers. The original Valentines were hand made and hand written. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Mr. J.C.Hall of Hallmark, and a couple of other companies, began mass-producing Valentines. Naturally this entailed a certain loss of personality. The sentiments and the poems were churned out en masse by hack writers, so that the typical Valentine became about as personal as an electricity bill.
However, well into my lifetime, Valentines remained the special province of romantic lovers. The most fun thing about them was their prescribed anonymity. You were not supposed to write your name on the card or cards. If you wanted to play the game seriously you might type the address of the recipient, and mail the cards from a different town. The idea was to create a sense of secrecy and surprise. It was a very transparent secrecy in most cases. But there was always the possibility of getting a card from a genuinely unknown admirer, and trying to guess who he or she was. That’s the very essence of romance – mystery. From the sender’s point of view, it was a safe yet exciting way of approaching someone previously admired from afar. Would she or he guess the identity of their admirer? It was always possible to drop hints.
Of course we can still play this harmless game, but has lost its point because Valentine’s Day itself has lost its point. In the domestic 1950s the card companies decided that romantic lovers were just too small a market to be profitable. They began to sell Valentine’s Day as a family thing. In this they were aided and abetted by the schools that (for reasons that still escape me) encouraged small children to send Valentines to one another. The market exploded. Now the local card store has Valentines for children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, dogs and goldfish, and even teachers. I suppose the last romantic attachment is just remotely imaginable, but the others are not – or shouldn’t be.
The debasement of the Valentine parallels the debasement of its key word, “love,” which is now used indiscriminately to cover the extremes of emotion all the way from passionate attachment to absolute loathing. At one end of the scale is the madness of true romantic love. At the other is (for example) the airline’s claim that “You will Love Our Service.” Same word, opposite meanings.
The verses in these mass-produced Valentines are truly appalling. For example, to my wife: “You pick up after me/And arrange things in their place/You turn my frown upside down/And put a smile on my face.” Verse like this could and should precipitate instant divorce, with a hefty settlement for mental cruelty. It’s a shame that love – which is very fine and very rare – should be dragged so low by these pitiless purveyors of bad verse. Why verse, anyway, when most of us in Long Island and Connecticut speak in prose, even when we are in love? And the cards are only the tip of this scarlet, heart-shaped iceberg. There are online cards, and videos, and “animated sexual greetings” to send to your beloved, or your teacher, to make your feelings entirely clear.
Searching through these dreadful displays of gross sentimentality and adolescent sexuality, I was almost tempted to forget about Valentine’s Day this year. But I don’t want to do that because, let’s face it, this is the only love festival we have. This Saturday I’ll give my wife the traditional flowers, the obligatory plush bear, the federally-mandated heart shaped chocolate box – and a personal letter.
Copyright: David Bouchier