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Profits of Swoon

In which we discover that the holiday devoted to love­and retail greed­has absolutely nothing to do with a saint named Valentine

By Christina Waters

EVERY FEB. 14, millions of Americans slip into a trance of ritual consumerism. Under its influence, we shell out serious money for extravagant and expensive perishables. Hothouse roses--at $50 a dozen--will be snapped up like glue guns at a Martha Stewart open house. Chocolate bonbons--enough to put us all into insulin overload--will fly out of confectionery doors. We will put on tight clothes and torturous shoes to consume $200 dinners. Is it an extraterrestrial virus? No, it's Valentine's Day, the collective heart attack that infects the very fabric of society with what optimists see as harmless indulgence.

Realists identify this spending frenzy as a clear case of social guilt, with a libidinal twist. The flowers, candy, greeting cards with icky-sweet platitudes are mercantile mea culpas to atone for our butt-brained insensitivity and inability to express our feelings. It's payback time, with Mary See's macadamia brittle as currency. Roses aren't merely fragrant foreplay; they're often surrogates. Instead of making a direct plea for nookie, we "say it with flowers." Here's the one day a year that adolescent boys think they'll get lucky if they can only find the right card.

How did we get so locked into this insanity? It began with two ill-fated Romans--both named Valentine--who were simply 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 a French tickler. The two Valentines lived in third-century Rome as out-of-the-closet Christians, sharing not only a name, but a death date--Feb. 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 would run around town, sacrificing goats and playfully whipping women with goatskin thongs. Romans thought this behavior would increase fertility, and we have no doubt that it did.

A millennium later, having absorbed Lupercalia in the great tradition of Catholic imperialism, St. Valentine's Day was given new sex appeal by none other than that gabby Anglo scribe Geoffrey Chaucer, who created the very first Hallmark moment when he called Valentine's Day a romantic "time when every fowl comes to choose his mate." Horny after the Black Plague and heady 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, while he was detained in the Tower of London.

Over the 16th and 17th centuries, European country folk engaged in all manner of quaint courtship rites involving herbs, rocks and secret messages on Valentine's Day, a festival that gave them permission to express naughty intentions. And with the emergence of reliable postal services in the mid-1800s, V-Day was reinvented as an orgy of sentimental consumerism. 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 Valentine's love letters became bestsellers, and pretty soon the confectioners and florists got into the act, urging lovers to commit ever more costly acts of amorous disclosure. And they did.

In 1923 the National Confectioners' Association took up the slogan, "Make Candy Your Valentine," echoing the promotional hoopla that turned Valentine's Day into a mercantile cash cow during the Civil War era. It was a traveling salesman from Kansas City, however, who took the business of Valentine's Day over the top when he founded his greeting card company in 1910. A workaholic with a gift for verbal reductionism, Joyce C. Hall firmly believed that modern Americans had little 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 $3.5 billion each year.

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 one billion Valentine's cards will be sent next week. Candy sales will exceed $600 million, and nearly 100 million roses will be purchased as preludes to romance, or else the safest sex act money can buy.

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From the February 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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