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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Feb. 2003

Valentine's Day

The worldwide hodge–podging of holidays is careening right along in Naples. They dress up for Halloween, are already asking me what time they should be over for Thanksgiving dinner later this year, and I fully expect Robert E. Lee's birthday and St. Patrick's Day to wind up on the calendar sooner or later. Yes, little Confederate Leprechauns will someday take their rightful place—right next to Barbie—in the traditional Neapolitan representation of the Nativity, the presepe

Today, St. Valentine's Day, is another one of those holidays that no one around here used to celebrate. At least Valentine is not a foreign import. He, indeed, was a priest in Rome during the reign of Claudius II Gothicus in the third century. He was beheaded, they say, on February 14, not just for refusing to give up his faith, but for refusing to stop performing Christian marriage rites in an age when Christianity was still a covert faith. Until 1969, the day was a feast day in the Roman Catholic calendar; now, however, the secularization is complete. Paraphernalia of St. Valentine's Day is evident in all the shops in Naples: stylized bouquets with heart–shaped candies in place of flowers, €50 heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, cards, little teddy-bears with the words "Ti amo" ("I love you") embossed on them, and a special newspaper insert bearing paid–for, personal declarations of love. There was also an article about the commercialization of holidays. 

There is some bad news about Valentine's Day: the heart is not an accurate metaphor for the emotion we associate with this day. Love is really controlled by the thalamus, an "ovoid mass of nuclei" in the brain. There is, however, good news: If you are in love, it doesn't really matter, and, anyway, it's much easier to make a paper cut-out of a heart than it is of an ovoid mass of nuclei—and finding even a bad rhyme for "thalamus" would just about put the Hallmark people out of business. (No, don't bother. I've been trying for days. So far, I have come up with: "I hope there's nothing with my gal/pal amiss; won't you be my thalamus.") 

I was once invited to speak on a "Valentine-related topic". The drab bureaucratic clunk of that phrase struck me like jack-boots on the Yellow Brick Road. You can have "work related," "accident related," "defence related," "budget related," "alcohol related," and so forth—things which make you tired, sorry or disliked by others—but I truly believe that you cannot have "Valentine related," without doing mayhem to the spirit of the season. 

It would be nice to believe that the day of Lovers is named for Valentine  because he died doing what Lovers do best. Alas, that is not the case. We associate lovers with his day because of early groups of English bird watchers. Even back in prehistoric times, they were a race of bird fanciers. They would stand around the Sceptered Isle in their bowlers and loin cloths peering through the liquid sunshine at Red or Periwinkle Breasted or Crested Warblers or Throckmortons. They noticed that birds took their mates on or about this date. By the time of Chaucer, it was well established. He recounts in his delightful A Parliament of Fowls, how all the birds come together on Valentine's Day and discuss which of them is the best mate. Does love soar like an eagle? Strut like a peacock? Is it a turkey? Or do you simply waddle over there and get it done as quickly as possible?—quack, quack, thank you Jack. In any event, says Chaucer: 

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day 
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate. 

Whatever love is, it is the most besung of human emotions. Read the words of one known in the 19th-century in America as "The Great Agnostic," Robert Ingersoll, someone who was honest enough to say that he didn't know about certain things, but who knew that… 

Love is the morning and the evening star. It is the air and light of every heart, builder of every home and kindler of every fire on every hearth. Love is the magician and enchanter that changes worthless things to joy and makes royal kings and queens of common clay. Without that sacred passion we are less than beasts; with it, earth is heaven and we are gods.

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