Valentine’s Day through the years

Friday is Valentine’s Day; if you haven’t made that dinner reservation yet, you might still have time to get a table at McDonald’s.

I’ve never had fond memories of this particular “holiday” and its origin as a celebration of martyred saints. Valentine’s Day wasn’t even associated with the idea of romantic love until the 13th century, but by 1797 a British publisher created a series of sappy verses for those too lazy to come up with their own: “The Young Man’s Valentine Writer.” As postal routes improved and delivery rates dropped in the next century, people began mailing these fill-in-the-blank valentines.

Overnight, stocks in cheesy sentiment and guilt-induced dining soared.

The natural evolution of all this, of course, was the burgeoning trade in fourth grade valentines. Valentine’s Day was the occasion on which our elementary teachers allowed reality to run rampant through the hallways like the bulls of Pamplona. It was as if, after spending the year insulating us from the cruelties of the outside world, of cupping us like eggs in a Styrofoam carton, our teachers suddenly decided to open wide the doors of humility.

Out came the brown paper bags, which we feverishly decorated with the requisite hearts and arrows. In a scene out of a Dickens novel, we spent days cutting out snowflake hearts and wearing our Crayolas down to the nub creating cards that would convey an idea of love none of us truly understood. Most importantly, we were told to write our names clearly on the front of our bag so that everyone would know where to send their valentines on the big day.

The result was often brutal. At the prescribed hour, our teachers had us deliver our prepubescent longings into those pimped-out lunch bags taped to the front of our desks. We raced around the room, hopped up on miniature boxes of chocolate and Necco candy hearts with the wildly inappropriate messages for 4th grade: “Be Mine,” “Kiss Me,” “Call Me,” and “Let’s Get Busy.” A more appropriate message would have been, “Test Your Blood Sugar.”

The boys gazed wide-eyed at Heather Palmer, the standard of beauty for the fourth grade, as she flitted from desk to desk dropping her valentines into bags like a nymph feeding grapes to Dionysus. After the last delivery, we’d rush back to our desks and spread the contents of our bags in front of us. We’d rummage through the notes and cards the way prospectors once sifted for gold in California, holding out hope for a personalized note from that special someone. For many, an actual arrow through the heart would have been less painful.

Students today, raised on participant trophies and carefully orchestrated attempts to give everyone an equal share, wouldn’t recognize this wanton cruelty. The Heathers of the world had their bags overflowing while Chad, the kid who couldn’t keep his fingers out of his nose, was left with little beside the notes the teacher discreetly placed in his bag. In a flash, we all got to see where we stood in the social hierarchy. We’d furtively glance at each other’s piles, comparing each to our own. Scarred and dazed from sugar hangovers, we’d limp back to school the next day. The teachers returned to their usual state of benevolent neglect, careful at least to make sure the same kids weren’t always picked last for kickball. By then, though, the damage was done.

Maybe this is why I’ve always been wary of Valentine’s Day, why my first valentine to my future wife was written on a complete roll of toilet paper. That’s why I avoid making that Feb. 14 dinner reservation or buying that bouquet of roses on the way home from work. Maybe a part of me hopes I’ve learned to convey my love through more than the trappings of a Hallmark holiday.

More likely, I’m just another self-inflicted martyr who’s traded his crayons for a laptop, his cutout hearts for a local column piece. I eventually found my valentine, for which I am forever grateful. Here’s hoping that you have, too — or at least that you got over life’s half-empty paper bags on the big day.

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