“Look at all MY Valentimes! (That’s what she called them, “Valentimes.”) She opened her little heart-shaped box made specially to hold them to reveal her huge stash of sparkling red and white cards. “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. But unfortunately for the next 11 years of my life, on February 14, this painful ritual would an annual ordeal. 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 another embarrassing 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 spring for jewelry and chocolate. Not just chocolate, but EXPENSIVE chocolate. A Whitman’s Sampler from Walgreens is not going to do it. AND jewelry from the “right” kind of jewelry store. But, just to make things easy, you can purchase your jewelry embedded in a box of chocolate— in the shape of a valentine. 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. I am pretty sure he would be appalled to find his name associated with little red and white cards and boxes of chocolate given that his sainthood came at the expense of being stoned to death! 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 not only greeting cards; a search for “Valentines” on Amazon will bring up over two million items for your shopping pleasure, including a four-foot teddy bear.
I don’t remember Cupid in my first Valentines Day experiences. Since we were a 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 scantily clad, if at all, 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 started reusing them. We send cards to the grandchildren, even though I’m pretty sure the older ones discard them immediately 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 dog-eared, recycled cards and watch a movie. It’s wonderful. The days of competing for Valentines Day chocolate, jewelry, and escorts are gone forever.
Meanwhile, back in First Grade, the Valentines Games continue. And now social media has been added to the mix. My mind boggles at the thought of my little tormenter, her smartphone at the ready, armed with the information of my valentine deficiencies. So little psyches are once again bruised and little princesses dream of becoming Queen of the Valentines Day Ball.
I’ll keep sending cards to the grandkids, especially the little ones, just in case.
Photography from Flickr Creative Commons. Pretty Girl: Cheryl Hicks, Musings from the Silent Generation: leakytr8; Vintage Valentines Postcard: riptheskull.