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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 2/15/2017 |




‘Not a red rose or a satin heart, not a cute card or a kissogram’ come the 14th of February? Are you sure, folks? Are you serious? It is Valentine’s Day, after all! Wouldn’t you be tracking the postman or the delivery van from early morning, wanting to discover your presents? Would it be red roses, chocolates or candies this year? Or expensive clothes, jewelry, perfume? Will you be checking your cell phone every five minutes to see if your partner is taking you out for a romantic meal in an expensive up market restaurant with a candle lit table, champagne in ice bucket and high class food? Or maybe it will be a surprise weekend in an exotic place – just the two of you, far from the madding crowd, in some little paradise? Or would you be satisfied with a simple elegant card with a clever, tender or sincere message declaring undying devotion and love? Perhaps a movie and then dinner in a cozy little restaurant or diner? Or are you a cynic who feels like throwing up at the sight of all these hearts and roses and lips and candies and chubby cupids? Either way, friends, it is here. Valentine’s Day, the biggest commercial success, second only to Christmas!

People now largely agree that the exact origin of Valentine’s Day is kind of confused – a mixture of the pagan and the religious. There was indeed a Saint Valentine – in fact there were at least two, and it is not clear why they should have become the patron saint of lovers. The origin of Valentine’s Day can be traced back, according to some, to Roman times when love matches were made during a mid-February fertility festival. It was Pope Gelasius who officially declared 14th February as St. Valentine’s Day in the 5th century, but there seems to be no evidence of celebrations till 14th century when it became high fashion in the courts of England and France for celebrating courtly love. The earliest description of February 14 as an annual celebration of love appears in the Charter of the Court of Love, allegedly issued by Charles VI of France in 1400 which describes lavish festivities attended by members of the royal court including feasting, amorous song and poetry competitions, jousting and dancing. The attending ladies were given the responsibility to hear and rule on disputes between lovers. It would seem that Valentine’s Day lost its excitement and charm for about three centuries – there is very little written evidence about the celebrations till it once again became the rage in 18th century England.

Interestingly, the resurgence of declarations of love on Valentine’s Day in the 18th century is linked to a very prosaic event – the introduction of ‘Penny Black’ postage stamp and the postal reforms introduced by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840. Letters could now travel far and wide, costing only a penny, and what’s more, travel anonymously. This seems to have triggered off the ardor of lovers all over England - apparently 400,000 Valentines were sent just one year after the introduction of the Penny Black. The practice of sending Valentines by post would become firmly entrenched in these years. Prior to this postal reform, a British publisher had published ‘The Young Man's Valentine Writer’, which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lovers unable to express their worthy and lofty sentiments. Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called "mechanical valentines." The production of Valentines soared thanks to "Cupid's Manufactory" as Charles Dickens termed it, with over 3,000 women employed in manufacturing Paper Valentines. Paper lace was discovered in 1830 and boosted the production of fancy Valentines made with paper lace and ribbons. In 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards were sent by post in Britain. Red roses, the favorite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, were made the emblem of Valentine’s Day by the Victorians around that time as well. Locks of hair, lovingly snipped and scented, accompanied the cards of lovelorn maidens.

However, the pomp and grandeur of Valentine’s Day as we witness it today can be attributed to the Americans. Valentine’s Day travelled to the USA from England. Esther Rowland is (1828–1904), known as the "Mother of the American Valentine": an artist and businesswoman who spent some time in England, she popularized Valentine's Day greeting cards in America. Soon huge numbers of printed cards replaced hand-written ones. In 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City began mass producing Valentine's cards. Small surprise that Hallmark has been designated as the High Priest of Valentine’s Day in the USA. Valentine’s Day is a big thing in the US today and Americans don’t hesitate to spend lavishly to commemorate - a new survey from the National Retail Federation (NRF) projects that U.S. consumers will spend a total of $18.2 billion on their valentines this year. Over $4 billion of that will be spent on jewelry alone, with another $2 billion on flowers. Consumers are also expected to spend on cards, clothes, and an overall nice evening out on Feb. 14.

British Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy may scorn the satin hearts and kissograms and propose giving an onion to the loved person, for ‘It is a moon wrapped in brown paper / It promises light / like the careful undressing of love.’ But the average consumer will happily buy red roses and candies and chocolates wrapped in pretty heart shaped boxes. Now, this does raise a question in my mind: why heart? Portia of Merchant of Venice asked a very pertinent question all those years back: ‘Tell me where is fancy bred, / Or in the heart or in the head?’ Do we have the answer even today? Then why are hearts used to symbolize romantic love and passion? There seems to be no clear answer except that the ancient civilizations believed heart to be the seat of all emotion, including love, fidelity, courage and a host of other human virtues. Maybe the Sacred Heart of early Christians played a decisive role as well to make it the universal symbol for love. Whatever the original reason, I don’t think that it will change anytime soon. Who would want to declare eternal love with the picture of a brain, for instance? Even though fancy and love and passion could well be bred in the head, as modern medical science asserts. Hearts and roses it shall remain the symbols of Valentine’s Day. Maybe for a very long time!

I am a great believer in celebrations and don’t see any problem in celebrating whatever is good and joyous and sweet. So I am all for celebrating Valentine’s Day, or any other ‘Day’ decreed by different world organizations. What troubles me a little bit about modern Valentine’s Day is its sheer commercial nature, the peer pressure to spend and consume whatever is prescribed by the marketing gurus. I can also imagine the possible distress and loneliness of those who don’t have a special person in their lives. But are we really obliged to celebrate just romantic love? What about our friends, or even family? I regularly receive Valentine cards from my friends and family, and it does make me feel special. I am sure a lot of others do too. So why be cynical and critical and Grinch-like when just a little effort can bring a smile on our faces?

The ambient morose atmosphere of the world today is depressing and discouraging, and anything that can alleviate the gloom, even for a time, should be welcomed with open arms. So let us rejoice and smile just for a day, remembering those we love and cherish. Let us go out of our way to bring a smile on the faces we love. Let us go out into the streets and pubs and restaurants and office canteens and roadside cafés and spread a bit of joy around. Wouldn’t that be a good thing to do on Valentine’s Day?


APARAJITA SEN

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