A Many-Splendored Thing


A day drenched in the red rains of candy hearts, roses and cards, Valentine’s Day is a day of love.  Skeptics and bitter singletons roll their eyes because the feverish occasion takes the question “how much do you love me?” very literally.  Cosmopolitan seems to have gotten it right; by aligning relationship longevity with price ranges, it preaches a tacit understanding that the more a lover surrenders his wallet, the deeper his love is.

While neither a skeptic nor a bitter singleton, I do find the day a tad, well, dull.  Here in the States, the day is caulked with stuff.  There is so much wrapping around the simple sentiment of love that I wonder if the 14th teddy bear would make a difference.

So now, I find myself asking the question, is this it? Is this as good as V-day gets?  Apparently not.  The day of love is a global phenomenon, revered in places where Hallmark does not even exist.  How on earth do these folks manage?

Valentine’s day has a history of extravagance down under.  Back in the Australian gold rush, wealthy miners spent their fortune on lavish valentines — some costing thousands of pounds — which in light of current inflation and dollar-pound conversion is a lot of dough.  These Valentines came in satin perfumed cushions, decorated with seashells, flowers and taxidermied humming birds (a pleasant gift indeed).  Such practices are now antique, but the tradition of luxury lives on as Aussies honor the day with unique mementos and exotic bouquets.

Brazilians don’t celebrate Feb 14th; their equivalent of Valentine’s Day is June 12th, Dia dos Namorados, the day of lovers, in honor of Saint Anthony, patron saint of matchmaking and marriage.  Unmarried women perform rituals to find their mates.  Some write the names of potential candidates on pieces of paper the night before, crumble them up and open one the next morning to determine whom they should marry.  Yes, quite the reliable system.

Great poets have graced this land and immortalized love in so many complicated ways. Weeks before Valentine’s festivities start, publications print love sonnets and verses that spark the creativity of all loving Brits to start penning their own for the momentous occasion.  Letters, songs, poems—the day steeped in literary tradition.

A fun tidbit to share at tea time: in the olden days, unmarried girls used to wake up before sunrise in belief that the first man they saw on Valentine’s Day would marry them within a year.  Shakespeare mentions this practice in Hamlet when Ophelia sings:
Good morrow! ‘Tis St. Valentine’s Day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine!

While I see some serious setbacks in the plan, who am I to argue with Shakespeare?

Practiced raconteurs of folklore and myths, the Chinese give their lovers reason to rejoice. This is the love story that defines a day: There once was a farm boy smitten with a princess from heaven. Flattered, she came down to Earth and lived with him in matrimonial bliss.  One day the King beckoned his daughter back to the heavens; she complied with a heavy heart, but her farm boy persisted.  Riding on a magical ox skin, the boy chased his wife through the skies.  The King, infuriated by his son-in-law’s impertinence, created the Milky Way between them.  It is only on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month that the farm boy is allowed to visit his wife by crossing a bridge stretched across the stars.  So on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, the Chinese celebrate their Valentine’s Day or Qi Qiao Jie.  This year, the date falls on Aug 16. On that day, lovers will visit matchmaking temples to pray for a successful marriage. Singletons will visit to seek luck in love.  And dreamers will look up to the constellations and bid our tragic lovers a good journey.

This is the country that owns the city of love, and it is the country where Valentine’s Day began.  During the Middle Ages, popular thought held that birds began mating halfway through February, and therefore lovers considered it auspicious at this time to exchange tokens of love.  Early French tradition had unmarried people “draw for” one another. They would go into houses facing each other, call out across the window and pair off with their chosen partners.  If a young man failed to be window-wooed by his valentine, he would desert her.  The sore maidens would then hurl images of their ungrateful lovers into bonfires and damn them to a fiery grave.  The ritual eventually grew out of hand — bonfires became big fires and maidens less forgiving — to the point that the government officially banned the custom.  Nowadays, the French celebrate the day in the same fashion we do.  Cards, fresh flowers and hand made chocolates all say one thing, je t’aime.

In Japan, February 14th is Red Day and March 14th is White Day. On Red Day, ladies give men chocolates.  There are two types of chocolates. Giri-choco holds no romantic implications and is bought for friends, bosses, colleagues and close guy friends.  Ladies pass it along to all men close to them, as it is embarrassing for men to not receive chocolate on that day. So severe is the association between men and their chocolates that half the country’s chocolate stock is sold on Red Day.  Honmei-choco is prepared by the ladies themselves and reserved for boyfriends, lovers and husbands; for these ladies, true love is not bought but knelt into dough. On White Day, men return chocolates favors to ladies who gave them chocolates on Red Day; this is the other half of chocolate sales. Preferences run twoard white chocolate — pure, dainty and cloyingly sweet.

So if my research is correct, Valentine’s Day is not entirely a commercialized Western export; it remains an endearing day of love for people across continents. This is a comfort and a reminder that love is a universal language translated through kisses and fluttering hearts.  Whether it be familial love or a lover’s love, the emotion takes many forms and gives us capacity to do great things.  Though I boost no Cosmopolitan credentials, I leave you with my own piece of wisdom…in verse.

If everlasting love is what your seek,
do not unload all on February 14th;
save some for the next day and the next,
Cupid will surely take care of the rest.