“I got FIFTY FOUR Valentimes!
That’s what we called them, “Valentimes.”
I still remember the heart-shaped box she carried made specially to hold them.
“How many did YOU get?” she chimed, smiling sweetly.
I didn’t need anything to carry my valentines in. I may have gotten a dozen or so, if you count the mercy ones from my gramma and my cousins. Mortified, I could hardly wait for the whole thing to be over. Unfortunately what I did not know at the time was that for or the next 11 years of my life, on February 14, this painful ritual would be repeated. Keeping score became less obvious, but not less brutal, when we reached high school. And if you grew up in a small town as I did, you will know that the little people you hid from in first grade followed you all the way to Graduation. So as the Senior Valentine’s Day Dance approached, my little nemesis, now blossomed into a teenage version of her adorable six- year old self, had a grown-up question,
“Who’s taking YOU to the Valentine’s Ball?” My only hope for an escort, as she well knew, was my younger cousin whom I could have bullied into going, but he danced as though he were shoveling hay. I stayed home.
Valentines Day can be brutal. And not just for kids. What’s more, it is no longer confined to a day; it lasts at least a month. This year valentines were on the shelves December 26! And until February 15, we will be badgered by advertisers trying to convince men that they will be permanently branded uncivilized jerks if they do not wow their Lady Love with jewelry and chocolate. And not just any jewelry and chocolate, but EXPENSIVE jewelry and chocolate, AND jewelry from the “right” kind of jewelry store. Neither are Samplers from the drugstore or last minute grocery store roses going to do it. One jewelry store solves the problem with a one-stop-shop. You can purchase your jewelry embedded in a box of chocolate— in the shape of a valentine. Of course. Ladies, in turn, are harassed by weight loss plans, fitness gurus and boutiques to shed those last shameful pounds so they can fit into that “little red dress” they need to show off their expensive jewelry at the Valentine’s Day galas. I have no idea who eats the chocolate.
I don’t think this is what St. Valentine had in mind. The details of his life are obscure, but I am pretty sure he did not achieve sainthood by handing around little cards with hearts on them. In fact since he was a Priest (or Bishop, depending on the source you prefer), I expect he would be appalled to find his name associated with little red and white cards and boxes of chocolate and not the Christian faith for which he was stoned! No one seems to know exactly how this distorted imagery evolved. But once the greeting card companies came along, well..you know the rest. And to be fair, greeting cards are not alone; a search for “Valentines” on Amazon will bring up over two million items, among which you may browse for your shopping convenience.
I don’t remember much about Cupid in those early Valentines Days. For one thing, since we were a predominantly fundamentalist Protestant community, our primary schools were not known for their expertise in Roman mythology. And I suspect the teachers considered Cupid’s garb just a little risqué for our six year old eyes. Nevertheless, Cupid has been around since the 1800s. History seems to have treated him more fairly than it did St. Valentine. Son of Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, Cupid is usually portrayed as a chubby little boy with a bow and a quiver of arrows, poised to shoot his victims, thereby infusing them with an overwhelming desire for a lover. So while the imagery has remained more or less intact, the concept seems a bit off for our modern taste. I don’t think romance would be my first reaction to having been impaled on an arrow. Perhaps this is the real reason Cupid never came up in those early Valentine Days. How on earth do you explain this to a first grader? But if his reputation has remained pretty much intact, Cupid, like St. Valentine, has not escaped commercialization. There is a Cupid dating service, there are Cupid cocktails, Cupid sunglasses, Cupid dog collars. There is a Zombie Cupid, a Spongebob Cupid, and my personal favorite, the Cheese Cupid.
But in spite of it all, I do celebrate Valentine’s Day — in a minimalist sort of way. My husband and I exchange cards, but when the prices hit $6, we seriously considered recycling them every year. We send cards to the grandchildren, even though the older ones probably discard them after pocketing the money. We do not buy chocolate, and especially not from jewelry stores. And we NEVER go to Valentines Day galas. We have had our fill of surfing parking lots, standing in lines, and eating tepid banquet food. We open our cards and watch a movie. It’s wonderful. And the days of competing for Valentines Day chocolate, jewelry, and escorts are gone forever.
Meanwhile, back in First Grade, the Valentines Games probably still go on, human nature being what it is. Since we live in kinder, gentler times now, hopefully the ritual has become kinder and gentler as well. But we didn’t have social media to deal with. My mind boggles at the thought of my little tormenter, her cell phone at the ready, armed with the information of my valentine deficiencies. So I suspect little psyches are once again bruised and little prom queens set into motion in the quest to win the Valentine Games. I’ll keep sending cards to the little ones, just in case.