14 February 2008

Valentine's Day

Today is one of the worst days of the year for me - if not the worst - and I even loathe the thought of it when I see it coming up on the calendar. Nothing wrong as such with February 14th as a day. Here in Ireland it is usually a grey and dull day, given that we are still having cool weather (despite the fact that the Celtic Spring is already two weeks old), so nothing special to expect really.
But what gets my goat is the association February 14th has nowadays with "Love", or what some weird people in the advertisement industry understand by "Love". (They would not really know what love is, since it cannot be measured in financial units or airtime performance impact grades.)

Like most evils of modern times, it all started in the USA, where stationery shops began to produce special cards for "Valentine's Day" around 1850. The official claim goes back to 1847 and a woman called Esther Howland (of Worcester, Massachusetts), but since this was the time when more than a million Irish emigrated to the USA (and many of them landed in Massachusetts) as a result of the terrible potato famine, it is quite possible that we have to take a share in the blame for spreading the Valentine nonsense around the world.

Ever since Irish minds have been polluted by organised Christianity, the stories of saints and miracles were mixed with the natural Celtic tendency to "blarney" and produced an entirely fictional world of its own. So we could very well be co-responsible for "St. Valentine's Day" as we are clearly responsible for "Halloween", another moronic American custom created by Irish immigrants and their misunderstood folklore.

After all, relics of one of the eleven men named Valentine (some of them might have been listed twice) who are recognised by the Catholic Church as martyrs are on display at the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin. They were sent there by Pope Gregory XVI and arrived in 1836, shortly after the Catholic Emancipation Act and only a decade before the begin of the great exodus, related to the potato famine. So the Irish who moved to the USA in the 1840s and 1850s would have been well aware and familiar with St. Valentine, whose feast day was February 14th. [In the great Vatican calendar reform of 1969 Valentine was actually removed (together with many other popular names whose authenticity is in doubt) and is therefore no longer a saint of the universal church. However, the use of his name in calendars of local and regional saints is still permitted by the Vatican.]

But how does an - apparently - early third century Christian priest from Rome, of whom we know nothing but his name (if he did actually exist at all) become the secular patron saint of romantic love (a subject the Church tries to avoid like no other) and the excuse for tasteless greeting cards and piles of tacky gifts for the special occasion?
I don't know, and it seems no one really does. Some blame Chaucer, others Shakespeare (since the day is mentioned by Ophelia in "Hamlet"), but no clear evidence can be produced.

There are two cultural links with ancient traditions, one Jewish and one Roman. In Hebrew culture Tu B'Av, the 15th day of the month of Av (usually corresponding with our late August), is the festival of love. In ancient times girls would wear white dresses and dance in the vineyards, where the boys would be waiting for them. In modern Israel this is still a popular day to pronounce love, propose marriage and give gifts like cards or flowers.

In ancient Rome a three-day feast (of probably pre-Roman origin) known as Lupercalia was always celebrated in mid-February (13th to 15th). The purpose of the festival was to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility, but without overtones of romance.
As the Catholic Church stole almost all Pagan traditions and feasts and turned them into Christian celebrations, it is quite possible that at some stage the 3rd century Roman priest was linked with the ancient Pagan Lupercalia.

But the real horror of "Valentine's Day" began during the 20th century, and again in the USA. During the times of depression in the 1920s and early 1930s American florists began to promote the giving of flowers as a sign of love on February 14th (probably inspired by the Chicago Valentine's Day Massacre, which created a huge increase of business for the florists, as all seven victims were buried with literally tons of flowers, given as a sign of "respect" which was really fear), while stationery shops and greeting card makers developed a whole range of special cards to accompany the flowers.

Later the chocolate makers jumped onto the band wagon, followed by wine and champaign merchants, hoteliers, travel companies, confectioners, pubs, discos and many other businesses. Meanwhile there is hardly any industry that does not try to make extra money from "Valentine's Day".
Massive advertising campaigns create extra millions for the major brands as well as for the creative agencies, and the collective pressure, applied with increasing ferocity through every medium available in our multi-media culture, drives millions of people to behave completely idiotic and spend large amounts of money "to show their love" to the woman or man of their choice or desire. The moronic custom does not even stop at married couples, and there are meanwhile even women who would feel neglected or insulted if they are not spoiled rotten by their male partner on "Valentine's Day" - all in order to create massive profits for the big multi-national (and mostly US-based) companies who produce all the tacky crap!

Love is about people, and a feeling expressed between people. It does not need a special day - just once a year - because true love is there every day. And it does certainly not need tacky but expensive tokens to proof itself. Lovers feel what they feel for each other all the time, and if they want to give their beloved a present (hopefully a nice and tasteful one), they can do it any time, and with no rules and pressure applied from outside. So if I had the power to change things, the whole charade of "Valentine's Day" is something I would abolish.

The Emerald Islander
(in love, but not a slave of stupid consumerism)

P.S. I just learned that in Saudi Arabia the religious police has this year banned the sale of all goods related to "Valentine's Day", as they are "un-Islamic". I am no fan of this country and have for many years done my best to highlight the massive human rights abuses that happen there. But for once I have to salute the Saudis on doing the right thing.


Alexander "Sunny" Bergen said...

I am no fan of the "Valentine's Day" madness either, and I am glad that I am not alone with my opinion. These days most people are so engulfed in consumerism that they no longer see the reality around them. Sad, really.


Thanks once again for an interesting comment. We seem to have quite a few things in common.

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