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Heart Throb

The annual holiday devoted to love--and fueled by confectioners and florists--has little in common with two guys named Valentine

By Christina Waters

IT'S ENOUGH to break your heart, this ritual display of pink and red. Pumped to the max, the heart icon is forced to submit to everything from sweat shirts to doggie snacks. Suffering from overexposure, the once-tender symbol of affection has been drained of its very life's blood. And we've all become Dracula. Instead of celebrating love with something resembling sincerity, we've crafted--in love's honor--an unholy day of obligation. And I pity the fool who doesn't come home next week with a box of chocolates under his arm.

Every Feb. 14, millions of Americans slip into a coma of ritual consumerism. Under its influence, we shell out serious money for extravagant and expensive perishables, most of which involve beaucoup calories. Hot-house roses--at $65 a dozen--will be snapped up like glue guns at a Martha Stewart sleepover. Enough chocolate truffles to put us all into insulin shock will fly out the doors of sugar shacks from Maine to Marin. The web will burn with last-minute orders for something involving the color red. Many of the afflicted will put on tight clothes and go out to expensive restaurants for $300 dinners.

Is it a virulent strain of mad cow disease? No, it's Valentine's Day, the collective heart attack that infects the very fabric of society with what some call passion and others call profits. Realists identify this spending frenzy as a clear case of guilt, with a libidinal twist. The flowers, candy, greeting cards with cloying platitudes--we use these generic mea culpas to atone for our insensitivity, our inability to express our feelings. Instead of making a direct plea for nookie, we "say it with flowers." And surely, thinks a nation of adolescent boys, we'll get lucky if we just find the right card.

HOW DID WE get so locked into this insanity? Well, the whole multibillion dollar debacle began with two ill-fated Romans--both named Valentine--who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, got executed and became Christian martyrs.

The odyssey leading from two guys named Valentine to a modern kingdom called Hallmark has more twists than Chubby Checker. The two Valentines lived in third-century Rome as out-of-the-closet Christians. For this sort of open devotion to the hot new celebrity messiah, the Valentines got big points with those who like a little bloodshed with their religion. (Maybe it was blood, and not roses, that made red the official color of the annual love-in.)

Sharing not only a name, but the same death date as well--February 14--their cult was grafted onto the very popular Lupercalia festivities held every Feb. 15. During the pagan celebration, scantily clad young men called Luperci ran around town, sacrificing goats, and playfully whipping women with goatskin thongs. Romans thought this behavior would increase fertility, and there is little doubt that it did.

A millennium later, lusty Lupercalian rites were absorbed into the liturgical dance card of Catholic hegemony, and voilà! St. Valentine's Day. It was that gabby Anglo scribe Geoffrey Chaucer himself who created the very first Hallmark moment when he called Valentine's Day a romantic "time when every fowl comes to chose his mate." Horny after all that Black Plague and flirting with literacy, European chivalric types began penning love poetry, which soon led to the first officially documented Valentine message, sent in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, whilst cooling his heels in the Tower of London.

Over the 16th and 17th centuries, European country folk engaged in all manner of quaint (euphemistic for "unprintable in a family newspaper") courtship rites involving herbs and secret missives on Valentine's Day, a festival that gave them permission to express naughty intentions. Valentine's Day can be seen as a culturally sanctioned way of unleashing those repressed desires.

Enter reliable postal services in the mid-1800s, and V-Day was reinvented as an orgy of narrative innuendo. Americans, as well as the English and the French, went mad for the new craze of sending sweet nothings through the mail. Books filled with sample love letters became bestsellers, and pretty soon candy makers and florists got into the act, urging lovers to put their money where their hearts were.

NO ONE LIKES to realize that they've been manipulated out of their hard-earned money. After all, there's no law against simply saying "I love you," to the one you cherish. It costs nothing, and unless I'm wildly mistaken, it has an enchanting effect upon the recipient. But no. It just wasn't enough for this capitalist nation which believes that real romance has to be expensive--sort of a literal interpretation of getting bang for your buck, if you get my drift.

It was a traveling salesman from Kansas City, however, who took the lucrative business of Valentine's Day over the top when he founded his greeting card business in 1910. A workaholic with a gift for verbal reductionism, Joyce C. Hall firmly believed that busy Americans no longer had time to take pen in hand and compose original holiday sentiments. So he did it for them. Today the Hallmark empire he founded rakes in $4 billion each year.

Not to be outdone by cornball prose, in 1923 the National Confectioners' Association took up the slogan, "Make Candy Your Valentine." Eat your way to true love--or at least a diabetic coma--might have been more accurate. And as we now know, the chemical composition of chocolate--the love substance of choice--sets off seratonin levels in the brain that exactly duplicate the sensation of romantic pleasure. So if money can't exactly buy you love, it can purchase a passable physiological substitute. (Yes, this does explain why so many unhappy, love-starved losers drown their sorrows in tubs of Death by Chocolate ice cream.)

How many of those special cards or bouquets of roses lead to true romance? How many chocolate truffles yield a roll in the hay? Who knows, but we're all hopelessly hooked. How hooked? Over 1 billion Valentine's cards will be sent next week. Candy sales will exceed $700 million, and nearly 100 million roses will be purchased as preludes to romance.

The true pathos of this wallow in collective craving is not the breathtaking banality of the cards that will be sent. Nor the mind-numbing cuteness of the imagery adorning wrapping paper, bon bons and assorted paraphernalia. No, indeed.

The true tragedy of Valentine's Day, and its sappy spawn of cards, candies and flowers, is that participants (i.e., men) really think they can make up for 364 days of unromantic, self-absorbed behavior just by following the simple guidelines set up by other clueless Casanovas before them. It truly is a no-brainer--participants don't even have to think. Everybody knows what you're supposed to do on Valentine's Day. Just do it, and she'll be happy, the ads say. So guys buy the right stuff and get cards that say the right stuff. And sure enough, she's happy.

Valentine's Day--a grotesque spectacle of schlock that we have all bought and paid for. And richly deserve.

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From the February 7-14, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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