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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Today On My Doorstep ...

I’m going to apologize upfront because this post was thrown together pretty quickly, but when something so cute happens in life you just want to share it.

I’ve been preparing myself for weeks for the upcoming farcical holiday which is Saint Valentine’s Day. I’ve endured literally decades of heart-shaped disappointments and embarrassments on this mid-February day. As a child, I vividly remember having a dismal turnover in one particular valentine box which I had designed to be a simple loaf of bread. Maybe the high-brow conceptual nature of the receptacle threw the other children off. Or as an adult, I recall each and every patronizing "awwww" that was bestowed on me by friends and co-workers because I was without a “special someone.” Or worse … the times I had a “special person” but didn't realize how cheap and unimaginative they were. Or the most horrible experience … where I was with a friend at a bar and was completely unaware of the date. The pub was having this Valentine's Day promotion where they randomly selected a “couple” and sat them at this special booth. There were streamers and champagne and a complimentary lovers’ dessert. And of course there were lots of pictures and Polaroids taken and intoxicated patrons chanting “kiss ... kiss … kiss!!” Can you say “mortified?”

Valentine’s Day is nothing more than a 24-hour period designed to boost business in certain commercial establishments and to torture the independent, free-thinking soul. Historical information is so sketchy that the “saintliness” of its origins cannot be confirmed. Supposedly, Valentine’s Day is an amalgamation of four men with the name Valentine: Valentine of Genoa, who died around 307 AD; Valentine of Rome, a priest martyred in 269 AD; Valentine of Terni, a bishop martyred in 197 AD; and a Valentine killed in Africa.

Unsubstantiated stories regarding the exploits of St. Valentine paint a picture of a clergyman persecuted by Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius gave St. Valentine the opportunity to convert to Roman paganism. When he refused, Valentine was executed. Before his death, accounts say that Valentine performed a miracle by healing the blind and deaf daughter of his jailer. Later, around 500 AD, Valentine was sainted by Pope Gelasius I.

The significance of February 14 is also open to historical interpretation. This date is supposedly when St. Valentine was laid to rest. And in ancient times, mid February was a well-known time of year. In Greece, it marked the end of Gamelion, a month dedicated to the marriage of Zeus and Hera. In Rome, the Lupercalia … a rite connected with fertility … was observed between February 13 and February 15.

Over the centuries, the story of St. Valentine has fallen victim to interpretation, hearsay, and the literary creativity of 14 century writers. One prominent version has of the myth has St. Valentine imprisoned and executed not for practicing Christianity but for performing secret marriages among young Roman soldiers and their lady loves. Emperor Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers and was thus infuriated by Valentine’s impudence and disobedience.

Another very popular variation on the story is that while imprisoned for his Christian beliefs, Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of the manager of the jail. On the evening before his execution, Valentine wrote this girl a note and then healed her sight so she could read it. The note read “from your Valentine” and became the unofficial first Valentine Day’s card ever written.

Through the years, the connection between St. Valentine and love and romance grew stronger. In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer coined concepts that would plague us for centuries. In his poem "Parlement of Foules," the line "for this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate" created the terms Valentine's Day and love birds.

On Valentine’s Day in 1400, an experimental court was created in Paris to deal with love contracts, marital disputes, and violence against women. Judges for the “court” were selected by a panel of women based on poetry readings.

In 1590, author Edmund Spenser used the line “she bathed with roses red, and violets blue” in his “The Faerie Queene.” A collection of English nursery rhymes in 1784 brought the phrasing closer to the “roses are red, violets are blue” we all know and … well, tolerate.

Around 1600, William Shakespeare referred to Valentine’s Day in his work, “Hamlet.”

In the very late 1700s, British publishers were producing limited lines of cards with romantic verses and sketches for young men unable to find loving words of their own for their sweethearts. Paper valentines became so popular in England in the early 19th century that factories were created to handle the demand. Specialty papers and lace were often used, as were imagery like Cupids, doves, and hearts. Reduced postal rates in England’s early 19th century started the tradition of mailing valentines to friends and family.

The creation of mass-produced valentines was adopted in the United States around 1847. Around 1950, the practice of exchanging cards in the U.S. was extended to all manner of gifts ... roses, chocolates, candies, teddy bears and other stuffed animals, balloons, and even diamonds and expensive jewelry.

Today, according to the U.S. Gteeting Card Association, more than 1 billion valentines are exchanged each year in this country, including valentine exchanges in schools and the rise of Internet e-cards.

Valentine’s Day has been adopted in most countries across the globe, but sometimes with little regional and cultural twists. In the UK in the region of Norfolk, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with “Jack Valentine,” a character that knocks on the rear door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children. In Wales, many people celebrate St. Dwynwen's Day, the patron saint of Welsh lovers, on January 25 instead of (or as well as) traditional Valentine's Day. In Romania, the traditional holiday for lovers is Dragobete, which is celebrated on February 24. In Egypt, many people celebrate Valentine's Day on February 14, and the indigenous Eid el-Hob el-Masri on November 4. In Israel, the Tu B'Av, is considered to be the Jewish Valentine's Day and is usually celebrated in late August. In Brazil, the Dia dos Namorados ("Day of the Enamored, or "Boyfriends'/Girlfriends' Day") is celebrated on June 12.

Countries in Asia were a bit slower to embrace Valentine’s Day, but many nations have created complex and interesting traditions that combine Eastern and Western flair. In Japan, the holiday was first introduced in 1936. The custom of giving chocolates was embraced after a few years, but it was only women who gave chocolates to men. Careful practices quickly developed over the type and amount of chocolate given to each person. For example, a woman might give inexpensive chocolate to an unpopular male co-worker, but she would use great care when choosing candies for her favorite uncle. In the ‘80s, a successful campaign was launched to create White Day. Celebrated on March 14, Japanese men are expected to “reply” to Valentine’s Day gifts on with white chocolates or non-chocolate candy. But again, there was a system. Some sources say that, on White Day, men are expected to return gifts that are at least two or three times more valuable than the gifts received on Valentine's Day. Not returning the gift is perceived as a man placing himself in a position of superiority. Returning a present of equal value is considered a method of terminating a friendship or relationship. Chocolate as a break up message … COOL!

In Taiwan, the tradition is like that of Japan … but in reverse. Men give gifts to women on February 14 and receive reciprocal gifts … hopefully … on March 14.

And my all-time favorite … in South Korea, citizens celebrate Valentine’s Day (February 14) with women giving chocolate to men, and White Day (March 14) with men replying with non-chocolate candy to women. But then we have Black DayApril 14 … where people who did not receive gifts on either Feb. 14 or March 14 go to a Chinese restaurant to eat black noodles (jajangmyeon) and "mourn" their single life. How appropriate!!

So now it’s Sunday … February 13 ... St. Valentine’s Eve … and I have not sent a single Valentine or purchased one solitary chocolate or treat for anyone. At about 7:15 p.m. I was relaxed and watching some TV when there was a knock on my door. I answered it to behold my seven-year-old niece bundled up from head to toe. She pushed back her hood, removed her gloves, and smiled at me. “Here,” she said as she handed me a plastic bag from a local supermarket.

“Where’s your Mom?” I asked.

“Outside in the car.” She waited a few seconds expectantly and then added, “Look inside.”

I pulled the bag open and inside was a small box covered with colored pasta and sealed with glue or modgepodge. I lifted the lid and inside … resting on a bed of tattered cotton … was a candy necklace.

“Thank you sweetie. It’s really pretty.”

My niece just giggled as she struggled back into her gloves. “You don’t wear it, silly … you eat it. It’s for Valentine’s Day. I made Mom stop by cause I wanted to make sure you knew I loved you.”

I was so humbled. I think I’ll be hitting the store tomorrow. At least for one special valentine.

POINT OF RANT: If I’m celebrating Black Day, the restaurant damn well better have a liquor license!!

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