Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Saints and Birds and the Commercialization of Holidays such as Valentine's Day

In today's Minneapolis Star Tribune, artist Larry Hanson illustrates a quote about St. Valentine, from Episcopal priest Howard B. Harper, which says, "Poor old Valentine, a third-century priest, who was clubbed and beheaded on February 14th, in the year 270, would certainly be surprised to find himself a lovers' saint." And on the always-entertaining blog of Cul-de-Sac comic creator Richard Thompson on Friday, we have "A History of Valentine's Day Cards, Again," with the assertion that "every word of it is true," in which he illustrates the oft-repeated myths that (a) Valentine's Day is really just a re-creation of the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, and that (b) St. Valentine  was arrested and eventually martyred for performing illegal marriages (banned during the reign of the emperor Claudius because it hampered his military recruiting efforts), and that he corresponded with his jail-keeper's daughter, signing the letters, "Your Valentine." (The image at right is from one of many sites that purports to relate the "true" story of St. Valentine.)

I love both Larry Hanson's regular "You Don't Say" illustrated quote and Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac comic. But while both are claiming to be presenting some truth about Valentine's Day that is little known, they are really only repeating what others have said, without question.

We all do that, of course, me included. When we learn something that sounds new to us that also happens to confirm our worldview, we are eager to embrace this new "truth" and even disseminate it to enlighten our friends and acquaintances. And while this sort of repetition of perceived fact without investigation has been going on for ages before the Internet was invented, the easy access to everyone's learned opinion makes the Internet an especially prodigious rumor mill. Which is sometimes fun, but also has the effect of helping myths to spread even more quickly and widely than they did when we got most of our information from the much slower but often just as misinformed print media of various kinds.

As Charlotte said to Wilbur in E.B. White's classic children's story, Charlotte's Web, "People will believe anything they read in print." Had he written the book today, surely he would have happily punned, "People will believe anything they read on the web."

For some reason I can't exactly explain, I have been obsessively curious about the history of holidays of late. I read The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum earlier this winter, which led me to read part of The Invention of Tradition, a collection of scholarly articles edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Soon a kind of intellectual domino effect was triggered in my mind, and I found myself hunting down articles in  scholarly journals, which I found I could access online after logging in to the Hennepin County Library website and following the research page to the databases link. It was an exhilarating discovery: A person can do real research online instead of relying on Google, which tends to lead you into an endless loop of sources quoting each other and often all leading back eventually to Wikipedia.

Without delving any deeper into explaining the processes of my particular strain of geekiness, and with the advisory that I am still researching this and looking forward to putting together a zine or something on the topic of various holidays (And dubious saints! Maybe trading cards!), I thought I ought to take a moment to share some of what I've learned so far. I'll apologize for not citing more sources at this time (I've dropped in a few links, even so), but it's nearly midnight and I thought I ought to post something about Valentine's Day while the topic is still timely.

Herewith, a few things I've learned about Valentine's Day, which probably don't confirm anybody's worldview, unless you are an avowed skeptic of everything you've been told so far:

Lupercalia, which was celebrated by the Romans on Feb. 15 or thereabouts, was a patriotic holiday, a kind of founders' day, if you will. The etymological root of Lupercalia is lupus, Latin for wolf, referring to the wolf mother who raised Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. If Valentine's Day were a reinvention of Lupercalia, surely we'd be setting off fireworks and waving Roman flags, not eating chocolates and sending cute love-themed greetings.

Valentine was a popular name amongst Romans. The name shares the same root as the word valor. It meant a brave, strong person. Who wouldn't want a name like that? Of course there were lots of people named Valentine. And of course some of them would have been Christians and some of them priests, and it's entirely possible that some of them would have been martyred for their faith. Persecuting Christians (and Jews, btw) was what many Roman emperors did. (But not all of them, and it appears unlikely that it was a predilection of the emperor Claudius who was in charge during the years in question—there also appears to be no record of any marriage ban during his short reign, from 268 to 270 A.D.). The early martyrologies had, in fact, identified at least two saints named Valentine who were both said to have been martyred on Feb. 14, in 268 or 269 or 270 A.D. But in the mid-20th century, the Catholic church concluded that the evidence about Saint Valentine, whether there were two or just one of him, was dubious enough to remove his feast day from any official observance. In other words, the church isn't sure of any historical facts about the saint.

The first recorded association that scholars have been able to find of Valentine's day with love and romance—and birds, incidentally—was when, in about 1383, Chaucer published his fanciful story poem The Parlement of Fowls, in which he describes an imaginary gathering of birds choosing their mates. Scholars think that he may have been connecting certain phenological observations—birds begin singing again around mid-February (I heard some especially bubbly house finches just yesterday), and the earliest signs of spring begin to manifest about this time—with the saint's day that falls at a convenient point in the natural year.

This association of Saint Valentine's feast day with courtship really caught on amongst the aristocracy in the 15th century, because it fit in so handily with the courtly love traditions already established there, and was a welcome diversion in late winter, before things got really busy in the spring (this was still an agrarian economy, remember).

The peasant classes appreciated a little late winter fun, too, and young unmarried people celebrated the day by pairing up as couples and going carousing in the taverns in groups. It appears that this folk custom was more about partying than about getting serious about romance, however. In a preindustrial agrarian economy, there's a certain amount of downtime that would be coming to an end real soon about this time of year, so why not party while you can?

Valentine's Day was largely unheard of in America until about the 1840s, right around the time people started getting into celebrating Christmas (coincidence?). A great deal of marketing by American businesses had something to do with it. What? You thought the crass commercialization of holidays was a late-20th century invention? It wasn't all crass, though, people had fun with it, and many of the 19th-century valentine greetings were quite clever and often humorous. And from these early beginnings in America, children were included in the exchange—it wasn't just about adult romantic love, but also about parents' affection for their children, and children's friendships, too.

The Hallmark company has a collection of historic American valentines at its headquarters in Kansas City, as does the Hennepin History Museum. (The image above is from Indiana University.) I like to think of this fanciful correspondence as early examples of mail art, but that might just be me seeking to confirm my worldview. The mailing of valentines peaked around 1850, at which time the post offices were swamped with seasonal mail, much like they are now at Christmastime.

It appears that ever since Chaucer's time, the holiday has taken on many meanings, from birds singing and pairing up, to courtly romance and poetry, to more lighthearted gestures of love and affection. I suppose people over the years have made of it what they like, according to their preferences and, dare I say, worldviews. And isn't that really the best sort of holiday?

I hope you had a happy Valentine's Day, however you chose to mark the day.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's put the fun back in Valentine's Day, OK?

Remember exchanging playful silly Valentines in school when you were a child? I hope you weren't traumatized by this practice in some way (by being left out, for example), in which case I apologize for bringing it up. But what I remember about it was that it was fun to get all that pretend mail (and the teachers made sure everyone was treated equally by sending home a list of all the kids in your class); and I really liked the small size of the cards and the silly invitations to "Be Mine" when we all knew that none of us was exactly looking for a soul mate in third grade; and the candy hearts; and then when Dad came home he brought a heart-shaped box of chocolates, supposedly for Mom, except my siblings and I ate all the good ones and left Mom the ones we didn't like.

And that was pretty much the extent of it. It was fun and playful and sweet, and then it was over and we moved on.

Then when I got to be a teenager it started acquiring baggage: Will I get invited to the Valentine dance? (no) Will I have a boyfriend to exchange Valentines with? (no) It wasn't really fun anymore, at least that's how I remember it.

I didn't like the expectations followed by disappointment that the holiday had come to represent, not just for me, but it seemed like that was the case for a lot of people. And I especially didn't like the advertisements promoting all sorts of expensive, elaborate ways that we're supposed to show our love. Especially how men are supposed to shell out the bucks to buy expensive and sexy things for their wives and girlfriends.

So when Craig and I were dating, and later after we were married, I really played it down and said I had no expectations of the day. Which wasn't really true, of course, but Craig took me at my word, so again I was disappointed—but this time it was my fault!

So one tearful Valentine's Day (I was either pregnant with our first child, or else she was a baby—either way, hormones had something to do with it), I expressed my disappointment and we started going out on Valentine's Day. Eventually I realized that I didn't really want a candlelight dinner or jewelry or a mawkish card, I just wanted some thoughtful and cheerful acknowledgment of the day.

I mean going out to dinner is great, I love going out to dinner. But going to dine at a restaurant on Valentine's Day is, well—talk about mawkish and expensive!

So we've been making each other Valentine cards for several years now, and they're generally lighthearted and humorous and clever and I've really enjoyed it. I craft something a bit unique, like a bottlecap charm or a card involving a bit of paper engineering, or whatever craft I'm into at the time. He has made me a card featuring a collage from junk mail (with all its hype and promises), or quotations about flirting (including a great one from Oscar Wilde complaining about women flirting with their husbands in public!) with images of famous flirts, as he called them (Lauren Bacall, Mae West, etc.). Last year's featured a red paper heart pasted onto a sandpaper card and said something about loving me through rough times and smooth. When I mistakenly used it recently to sand some wood, he said that was OK, he had intended it to be practical, as well!

One year, when Craig was working at Utne Reader,  I made a whole bunch of mini Valentines (about 2 inches square) with the greeting "Happy Heart Day" and had him bring them to work and distribute them to everybody. He reported back how delighted everyone was to get them. (And he said that he kept saying, "These aren't from me, they're from my wife." Especially to the women.)

So it was in that spirit that I went looking on Etsy, the forum for crafters and artists to sell their handmade things, to find items for a "treasury" of lighthearted Valentines. While I didn't find much that was as silly as I would have liked, I did find some clever, cheerful things worth showcasing. It's considered bad form (downright tacky, in fact) to feature yourself in a treasury, so my Valentines are not in that treasury, but are found on my Etsy shop, or at the Barton Handmade Arts from the Heart fair on Feb. 12, which I guess I'll have to tell you more about in a separate post.