There have been lots of Valentine’s Day posts around the blogs today, as might be expected. Like most traditional celebrations, this day has been overblown, inflated, and hijacked by shops and big corporations, until it is has become something very different from its roots at a time more innocent.
I have always celebrated it, one way or another. As a child, I was bought a card to give to my Mum, and perhaps a small gift to present to her too. Once I was an awkward teenager, keen to impress my first real girlfriend, I saved for weeks to be able to give gifts of flowers, and chocolates in a heart-shaped box. Back then, it was not done to sign the accompanying card. It was supposed to be a mystery, despite the obvious farce of handing it over along with the gift. On rare occasions, I have received an unsigned card in the post. Sometimes, this was a prank organised by friends, and very rarely, a token of affection from someone that I had no idea even liked me.
If you are settled in a relationship, perhaps even married, such cards can ruin the day, and many days following. A jealous wife or husband will be sure that you must know who sent it, and constantly demand to know who it is. You can protest your ignorance of the sender until you are exhausted, but the seed of doubt will have been sown. Anyone thinking of sending a card to someone they know is happily involved, should seriously consider the potential for damage. Or maybe that is their intention?
As commerce began to tighten its grip on the day, it started to seem as if some flowers and a card were no longer enough. Heart-shaped jewellery became popular, then stuffed fluffy animals, personalised ‘I Love You’ gifts, soon followed by complete ‘Valentine experiences.’ Nothing was ruled out, by anyone with the funds to support the efforts of the merchandisers. The simple flowers soon became too expensive for most pockets. By the late 1970s, shops were asking £2 each for roses, with a bunch of twelve costing half a week’s wages. That the same bunch could be had for a third of the price the following day was simply an indication of how supply and demand works in retail.
Gifts and cards were now so commonplace, we were urged to actually be doing something memorable to celebrate this day. Weekend breaks, ‘Romantic’ destinations, special meals in restaurants and hotels, with dishes given corny names for one night only. Heart-shaped desserts, even heart-shaped steaks. There seemed to be no end to the invention, when it came to cashing in. People would ask “What are you ding for Valentine’s?” This said with the same expectations as they might have for your holiday plans, or Christmas celebrations. TV advertising, in-store advertising, racks of cards, and gifts ranging from heart-shaped cookies, to heart-shaped frying pans, (for that breakfast egg, on the 14th) all appeared in the days immediately following the Christmas break. Even toys are sold with special Valentine tweaks, leading children to anticipate even more gifts, and continuing to miss the point completely.
Overwhelmed by this sea of commercialism, my instincts made me reluctant to comply. For some years, I refused to play ball. I might buy a card, or might not. I flatly refused to buy flowers at inflated prices. (And still do) I would discuss the crass nature of the exploitation, though deep down, I knew that my wife or partner secretly hoped for some acknowledgement on the day. Eventually, I settled for an acceptable balance. A card, a useful or attractive gift, but no pandering to special nights, or romantic breaks. No visits to restaurants, to advertise my love over a heart-shaped Panna cotta.
And I started to think about the unloved; the lonely singles, bombarded by this imagery for weeks on end. No cards in the post for them. No chocolates, heart-shaped or otherwise. The absence of tokens reinforcing their loneliness and concerns, their worries about a life unfulfilled.
And all because of a letter, sent by a prisoner, in the days of the Roman Empire.