Saturday, February 14, 2009
HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!
Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is in the air! Romance abounds! I'm sure, because a boisterous cardinal told me so in a sweet clear song soon after the sun came up. And if anyone knows about passion, it’s that saucy ol’ scarlet-attired redbird. Yet I confess, I’m never quite sure why we celebrate such a love-affirming day in the middle of winter. Wouldn’t April or May be a better time for proclaiming matters of our over-flowing hearts? Actually, maybe not. If you wish to know how Valentine's Day came about, various legends and bits of folklore abound—all purporting to explain the who, what, where, when, and why of things. Yes, I know, you pragmatists will harrump and say the whole shebang is a vile concoction of the greeting card, chocolate, and flower retailers, designed solely to add dollars to their coffers. Well I say lighten up! Go with the moment, fantasy or not—what does it matter? Love and romance and passion surely aren’t fantasies. Life is too short to keep peeping behind the curtain; just enjoy the show! There’s the tale of the Roman priest, martyred for performing marriages for soldiers, against the decree of Emperor Claudius II, who thought single men made better warriors. A priest named Valentine who fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, to whom he sent a letter just before being beheaded—on February 14th—which he signed…“from your Valentine.” Or perhaps you prefer the tale which says Valentine’s Day springs from the old Roman Feast of Lupercalia—a rowdy fertility festival where teenage girls would write their names on bits of parchment and place the slips in an urn. Unmarried young men would then draw a name from the container and the girl would become his companion for the remainder of the year. Centuries later, the early Christian Church, appalled by the concepts of this pagan rite pairing, tried to switch things around a bit—first by banning the name drawing, second by renaming the day to honor a saint…enter St. Valentine’s Day. (The young men were, of course, bummed at losing such a near-perfect form of matchmaking. Which, when you think about it, is much like our modern system of automobile leasing—pick out a new vehicle, drive it a while until the miles build up and the new wears off, then turn it in and pick out another model and start over.) Anyway, the old practice was modified to a more decorous exchange of notes expressing admiration which, as centuries progressed, got adopted by young men and women around the world. Though nowadays I suspect any red-blooded American male who wishes to do Valentine’s Day up right had better come calling with more than a paltry hand-written card. My favorite folkloric twist to the Valentine’s Day opus concerns the odd notion that February 14 marked the beginning of the mating season for birds. This idea seems to have been fairly widespread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Many birds do begin to congregate in flocks around this time of the year. And large migratory flights are often witnessed. Some scholars think the belief can be traced to the courtship flights of crows, which often takes place throughout much of Europe around the middle of February. There’s additionally the venerable tradition regarding the first bird a woman sees flying overhead on Valentine’s Day. If the bird’s a robin, she’ll marry a sailor. A sparrow indicates a future mate who’s poor. But if she sees a goldfinch, her prospective husband will be rich. The belief that February 14 somehow marked the beginning of the avian mating season also seemed to coincide with many early-European traditions which saw mid-February as the rightful start of spring. And spring, as even those prosaic Middle Agers could have told you, is unequivocally the season for kicking off a romance.