Ever Changing Valentine’s Day Rituals

If you google the origins of Valentine’s Day you would be surprised to find traditions that you won’t want to share with the little ones! Apparently the Roman feast of Lupercalia, which took place between Feb 13th and 15th, was an evening of debauchery, where mostly naked and drunk men and women performed rituals - often violent, including thrashing women with the skin of a sacrificed animal - all to bring about fertility. This ritual typically ended with a matchmaking-like lottery. By the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I made it a Christian holiday; It tamed the celebration somewhat and it expanded to include celebrating love. In good time, Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized the holiday in their work and by the middle ages, handmade paper cards began to be exchanged - a tradition alive and well today!

Valentine's Day is now celebrated globally. In Denmark, they exchange “lover’s cards” or a “joking letter” which might contain a humorous poem or rhyme written on cut paper and signed anonymously. In South Africa women may pin to their sleeves the name of their someone special. In most places around the world, it has become quite commercialized. According to the National Retail Federation, total spending for Valentine’s Day for 2018 in the US will top $19 Billion.

Have you ever stopped to think about your connection to the holiday- what it means to you or how it makes you feel? My childhood memories of Valentine’s day are colored by insecurity and worry. I remember somewhere in my early teens anxiously listening for my name to be called during homeroom, when the student reps would deliver “candy grams”. Would I get a note? Would it be anonymous? A few years later, in jejune young adult relationships, this holiday presented an opportunity to measure romanticism in a relationship. The pressure mounted….. What to wear, what to gift, where to go and how to plan so the evening would end in intimate bliss?  

After marriage and kids my valentine’s day holiday morphed into something expanded -it included parental love and indeed more responsibilities! I can remember nearly 20 years ago sitting patiently with my first born as she wrote her name on 12 homemade valentines cards for the kids in her preschool class. Each year and with each child the experience has changed. Early on I worried what other mothers would think when my son insisted on store bought Star Wars cards- not an iota of personalization. With my third, our focus has shifted away from sweets (due to wellness and sensitivity to food allergies) and our planning requires more pacing and advance thought. Classroom culture has morphed as well to a more sensitive and inclusive one. My youngest's child’s teacher wrote this year, “If you send cards, send one for each child!” And she insisted on allergen free treats or no treats at all- an effort to keep children with food allergies worry-free and safe.

These fair and controlled experiences seem to end just when hormones start to fire up! Leaving the safety of elementary school, middle schoolers begin the free fall of Valentine’s Day - I guess just like I did.  Likely my older kiddos also sweated the “candy grams”, “locker decorations” or whatever their Valentine’s Day middle school equivalent is, and my youngest will soon survive that drama as well. During these adolescent years, this holiday does in good measure of offer an opportunity to build grit, tolerate insecurity and disappointment, and hopefully on one or two occasions, create a special, loving memory.

I can’t help but wonder if this reflection on the origins of Valentine’s Day doesn’t to some degree highlight hope and direction for us all. A highly sexualized, violent ritual eventually morphed into a tamer, more romanticized celebration. And a few centuries later, even our preschoolers can safely join in - celebrating friendship!!  Thank you, elementary teachers, for leading a new way, lighting a path to inclusion, kindness and thoughtfulness. May your lessons expand a bit to middle, then high school, in some age appropriate way - not through controlled inclusion, but through reflection on the message we send each other and society at large.  While I am a strong believer in celebrating romantic love - especially my own - I like the idea of also including family and friendship love in our modern Valentine’s rituals.  How can we in our intimate circles and communities be joyful around the 14th - celebrating all sorts of love, but also mindful of those who are hurting - those who have lost loved ones, are alone, or simply feel alone? Should our thoughts focus as much on those who have lost a job, who battle an illness, or whose family is tiny and/or distant as the one who makes our heart throb? My youngest will join my Valentine outing tonight - at an intimate dinner for three! And just to get those creative juices flowing and stretch her a bit beyond the Hallmark, candy and chocolate hyped holiday... I will ask her not just, "Who is/are your Valentine(s)?" but also, "Who in your world could use a Valentine the most?"