Everyone I know hates Valentine’s day.
This is because they’re doing it wrong.
I’m running around town at three a.m., treading lightly across lawns and hearing the blue squeak of snow underfoot, putting my toes carefully between black ribbons of ice on the porch steps. Dropping brightly-colored bouquets and scrolls wrapped in silk ribbon on the doorstep, vaulting the fence and slipping back into the line of footprints that leads back to the warmly idling truck. The truck is full of presents and a thermos of hot chocolate spiked with Bailey’s. I haven’t slept.
Toward sunrise, there’s the increasing chance of being caught. Someone might be coming out to get the paper just as I trundle up the road; standard strategy here is to drive on as if I had other places to be, very important places like the biscuit joint, and then come back around the block while they’re busy pouring the coffee and wondering how Egypt is getting along.
It’s a rogue’s holiday, a mischievous, scheming holiday. It’s a day for pretty paper and fresh flowers and brightly-colored ribbons snapping in the wind on a cold, gray morning. It’s a gorgeous day to be running around town making merry.
So why is it that for everyone else, Valentine’s day is a time to moan if you don’t have a lover, and fret if you do?
I blame it on telling the wrong story.
The Story of Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day has a horrible story. Lovers used to write each other verses for February 14th after Chaucer regaled St. Valentine’s Day as the day that birds found a mate. Then a British writer published a tome of pre-written Valentine’s verses for poetically-challenged lovers. Printers picked up the idea and created “mechanical valentines”. Esther Howland and Hallmark took it from there. Cards were soon not enough (and why would they be, with the same sentiment the next girl over also received) and so flowers, and chocolate, and jewelry.
It’s hated as a commercial holiday – which it is. It’s hated because it puts a great deal of pressure on couples to come up with a “perfect” Valentine’s day – which it does. It’s hated because it makes everyone who is not part of a couple feel like they’re missing out – which they are.
It’s a wretched story. Which is why I don’t tell it. I tell this one:
The original Valentine was not a lover. He was a bishop.
The emperor Claudius II (this was when there were empires) found his soldiers were not as enthusiastic about dying as they had once been. Wives, he thought, were clearly to blame. No man would risk dying in battle if he had a family at home waiting for him to return. He decreed that no young men would be allowed to get married, which was somewhat distressing for the young lovers of Rome.
Now, Bishop Valentine knew perfectly well that the only reason to forbid lovers from marrying was money, class, or feuding families (Shakespeare existed long before William). Youth and war, he considered, were no reason two sweethearts should not be together, and he began to conduct marriages for the young people of Umbria in secret, out of sight, in the dark hours after midnight and before dawn. His name was passed from soldier to soldier: the friend of lovers, Valentine.
He was caught, of course. All it took was one soldier who had never intended to marry his girl in the first place and figured he wouldn’t have to go through with it if the only willing bishop was gone. Valentine began the ceremony; Claudius objected at the appropriate point, and the young soldier heaved a great sigh of relief while the bishop was marched off to prison. The girl was naturally inconsolable, but an emperor’s interference is a fairly good reason to leave one’s fiancee at the altar, and to the best of my knowledge she never blamed the soldier.
During his imprisonment, Valentine befriended his jailer’s daughter. No funny stuff, mind you; the girl was only twelve years old, and on the other side of the bars besides. In his account of the affair, Jacobus de Voragine accused the girl of being blind and deaf, saying Valentine restored her sight and hearing so he would have someone to talk to. His account is intriguing but hardly accurate; the girl was merely very shy. Jacobus always tended toward the dramatic.
Before Valentine was executed, he wrote the girl an affectionate letter, telling her how glad he was of her company while he waited to die. He signed it “your Valentine” and asked to not be forgotten. He was marched out, beaten with clubs, and stoned until everyone’s arms grew tired, but Valentine was a man with a strong heart, and he did not die. They beheaded him in the interest of time (everyone wanted to go home for supper) and buried him at the Via Flaminia.
Valentine reached out to those who were wretched with how dark love can be, and gave them the bright side instead. It’s a good tradition; better than store-bought cards and waxy chocolates. It’s my tradition now.
Telling a Different Story
Everything you hate can be turned upside down in just this way.
Most people I know hate Valentine’s day even after I tell them this story. And because they hate it, they refuse to participate. They stay at home and watch tear-jerkers or horror flicks (depending on both their level of aggression and gender), eating ice cream and pretending they don’t mind being alone. They kick things, get drunk, and rail against the holiday.
But pretending the story doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away.
You have to transform it into something else.
The way I tell the story includes the handwritten love letters, the secrecy, the thrill that comes with risking something to show your love. And because I did, Valentine’s Day became my favorite holiday. I started to hope I’d be single whenever it rolled around. The last time I had a devoted boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, he did the whole traditional nine yards: flowers, candy, a vacation to a nice hotel and a fancy restaurant out of town.
It was by far the least fun I’ve had on Valentine’s Day.
Once you change the story, you wonder what on earth is wrong with people who choose to stick with the lousy version.
Every day, you tell stories about your life. Who you are, what you’re doing with your day, where you’re going next. You’ve told them so often they feel permanent. But they’re not.
You are allowed to change the story. Tell it and re-tell it and tell it again until it says just what you want it to say. Until it becomes a story you want to live.
A Word About Love Letters
One of the dangers of beginning to enjoy something you previously hated is that it’s very difficult to stop doing it. For me, the part I can’t quit is love letters. I can’t stop. I’m horrible. I start with my closest friends, my goddaughters, my parents, my neighbors. Then it becomes colleagues, college classmates, contacts I once knew in other cities.
I write one for every person who was kind to me this past year with my still-young business, everyone I told about this website, the one I just started today, on Valentine’s Day. I don’t think I would have created this without them So I write a letter for Jonathan and Charlie, Terry and Jeff, Sonia and Brian. For Naomi, who told me my fears were not stupid, and for Havi, who told me they were. (They were both right.)
If you hate Valentine’s day, change the story. Write a love letter to someone you love. Make it someone you’re not in love with – someone you just love, wholly and without reservation, someone who loves you back, someone whom you never think to tell how much you love them because they already know.
Tell them anyway. Tell a new story.