Many threads have woven through history to shape the Valentine’s Day we celebrate today into admittedly a rather commercial holiday. But it’s been industrialized since the mid-1800s when an enterprising Boston artist, Esther Howland, picked up on the popularity amongst wealthy Europeans of exchanging intricately designed Valentine’s cards. Ms. Howland started the first Valentine’s Day card company in the United States, handcrafting cards with ribbons and paper lace imported from England. There was such a high demand that, by the time she sold it in 1881, her card company was bringing in $100,000 a year.
The escalation to our modern Valentine’s Day industry might suggest, from an anthropological perspective, a desire to create an icon love in a world where we are bombarded with negativity. And, if peer pressure in the form of a commercialized holiday calls us to express our affections and salute love, well, cheers to that.
And superficial though it might seem, perhaps the exercise of exchanging Valentine’s cards and giving thought to their classmates can help instill in our children something positive, kind of like the giving circle of Native Indian tradition.
Here on the Island, some of our children get that kind of rich, hands-on experience. Stephanie daRosa, lead teacher and director of Plum Hill School, says she likes to take the sharing and exchange aspect of Valentine’s Day a step further by getting the kids involved in a craft, and by tying the holiday in with other things they can get behind, like making paper snowflakes or play-dough heart ornaments they can give to someone close.
“One year the staff made each student a message in a bottle, filled with glitter and confetti and a special anonymous message to them,” Ms. daRosa recalled, “so they got to experience the excitement of that, but also how it feels to get recognition when they don’t even know who it’s from.”
“We also have two very special pet mice (made of wool) who live at the school,” Ms. daRosa says, “and something exciting always happens with Mathew and Matilda on Valentine’s Day.”
Two years ago the mouse couple got married and last year they had a baby on Valentine’s Day. Ms. daRosa says the whole point is to encourage the children to celebrate in more organic ways, to stimulate positive shared experiences they can internalize and carry with them.
Instilling values like sharing, respect, and commitment are at the root of Valentine’s Day, a holiday whose history, though somewhat obscure, is much deeper than its cupid-esque surface.
It is believed that on Feb. 14, 269 AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius II had a priest named Valentine executed for refusing to denounce Christianity and continuing to perform marriage ceremonies. Feb. 14 became a day to practice commitment and faith, the virtues embodied by Valentine, who was declared a saint in 469 AD by Pope Gelasius.
From the pagan perspective, the midpoint of February is when many species of birds mate, so in the Middle Ages new couples came together on Feb. 14 to symbolically consecrate their unions. That tradition spread to the upper class of England and France, who seized upon the day to extend love notes and lavish gifts, and rare treats (like chocolate) upon their lovers, or would-be lovers.
Many Vineyarders will be sending love notes, buying flowers and chocolates for their lovers, and celebrating Valentine’s Day in flamboyant to quiet ways.
On the more poetic end is Joel Aronie, inventor of the popular Zero Blaster (zerotoys.com.)
“We keep it pretty simple . . . ” Mr. Aronie said. “I always write a little something for her, and she writes a little something for me.”
Maybe not so simple, when she is his wife of more than 40 years, celebrated writer and teacher Nancy Slonim Aronie, whose Chilmark Writing Workshops series is now a regular Sirius Lime radio show. In fact, Ms. Aronie will just be returning on Valentine’s Day from Kripalu where she’ll have taught a 3-day Writing From The Heart workshop.
On the more flamboyant end, Joe Cloherty says of his girlfriend Michelle Boelsen, “you have no idea how much I love this woman. She just turns me into the ultimate love bug.”
After four years together, he says this year he’s going to have to do something to really wow her: “ I’m going to rent one of those little planes with a big heart-shaped banner trailing behind it that says ‘Michelle Will You Marry Me?’”
One West Tisburian we’ll call Joe (he doesn’t want us to blow his cover) says he’s renting a limousine to pick up his girlfriend and, weather permitting, he’ll take her to Great Rock Bite for a moonlit stroll along the beach to a picnic blanket he’ll have set up, complete with champagne in a bucket and crystal glasses.
Carpenter and builder Matthew Mara mingles romantic sophistication with a little, well, Vineyard nuttiness. His longtime girlfriend, teacher Amelia Burns, says “he’s always under extra pressure at Valentine’s Day because my birthday’s the next day.”
“That’s true,” Mr. Mara says, “and how or even if we celebrate depends on where she is . . . Last year she was in Boston, and the year before in Cambodia!”
But this year, he says, they will be together. “And I’m going to take her to dinner at Detente,” he said. “Then we’ll go to Lambert’s Cove Beach and jump in the water!”
“Uh, what do you mean we?” Ms. Burns asked.
Ms. Burns, who works at Sioux Eagle Designs jewelry boutique on Main street in Vineyard Haven, says she does appreciate when her man plans ahead.
“Because most men don’t,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how many men come in to the store that day.” But of course, she said, “We’re always happy to help them, even at the last minute.”
Another Vineyard couple, artists Steve Lohman and Jenifer Strachan, are sometimes separated at Valentine’s Day because, Steve confesses, “I love Mardi Gras in New Orleans and it often falls over Valentine’s Day. Jenifer’s not such a Mardi Gras fan . . . but she really must love me to let me go without her.”
This year, however, they’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day together in Key West.
I, too, will be celebrating in Florida. Last year on Valentine’s Day I got engaged, and in August married my fiance, Michael West. This year he was designated to attend a conference in Orlando over Valentine’s Day.
When he pulled the “Hey, I’m a newlywed” card, his boss did not let him off the hook, but instead suggested I tag along. I’ll be happy to spend Valentine’s Day reflecting about love, reading by the pool, and dreaming of my sweetheart until we can share a romantic dinner together at some quiet little outdoor cafe amidst warm breezes and swaying palm trees.