Dear St Valentine
I’m sorry to do this today of all days, but I’m breaking up with you. It’s not me. It’s you. It’s just too much.
You had no idea what you started back in the early in 290s AD; the pyramids of chocolate boxes in hues of pink, cerise and blush, cakes covered in rich fuscia buttercream adorned with hearts and butterflies, bottles of champagne waiting for ice, forests of roses, single stem or half a dozen with their deep velvet red petals, and row upon row of bright glittery cards in their shiny unrecycleable cellophane.
To be fair, I’m not sure you ever meant for it to proliferate in such a way. You had good intentions. Legend has it that under the rule of the mean Roman Emperor Claudius II nicknamed ‘Claudius the Cruel’, you performed secret wedding ceremonies at a time when weddings were banned. This was because Claudius fought many wars, for which he needed young men willing to fight. He thought men would be more interested in going to war if they weren’t married. It is more likely that you were persecuted by Claudius because you were Christian and unwilling to convert to Roman paganism, but either way, it’s still a good story. So the evening before your execution (beaten with clubs and then beheaded) you wrote a letter to the daughter of your jailer and signed it ‘Your Valentine’ and the expression has stuck ever since and apparently you were buried on 14 February 296AD. If this was even you, because there are two other priests from this time, also called Valentine who vie in the history books to be the rightful ‘Saint Valentine.’
Really, your link to the romance of Valentine’s Day is rather tenuous. It wasn’t until Geoffry Chaucer wrote about birds pairing off on 14th February (about 1000 years after your death) that the notion of romantic love and Valentine’s Day began to take hold. Shakespeare too wrote about it in Hamlet and soon everyone was using it as an excuse to write poems and odes to their loved ones. As for the most famous of Valentine’s poems, ‘roses are red’, its provenance dates back to 1590 (when the words were ‘ She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew’). By 1835 60,000 cards were sent, and by the 1840s this had risen to over 400,000. Add in the mass production of chocolates and by 2015 around £1.9 billion was spent on cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts. The commercialisation of love is complete. I know you can’t really be blamed for all of that, if anything those sentimental Romantic yet buttoned up Victorians are to blame, but your martyrdom was the beginning of it all.
So now we are stuck with the interminable day that is your day, Valentine’s Day. The horror of not getting a card or present is almost as bad as the horror of getting one, especially when you’re younger and it’s from the boy you definitely don’t fancy. Equally I don’t need you to tell me when to profess my love for someone, or as an excuse to scoff some chocolate or to go out for dinner, but I can see how it might give some the dutch courage to finally tell that one person how they really feel. For me though it’s just another way for industry to sell us things we don’t really need, love cannot be neatly bundled into flowers or truffles. Love is in the small every day things we do for those we care about. It is far more precious and magical than any Hallmark card can ever capture, and those who have or give love should cherish and nourish it every day. And I think deep down we all know that.
So dear St Valentine, it’s clearly too late to put the genie back in the bottle. I wonder if you are turning in your grave at the hyped up commercialised soppiness of it all? Or pleased that you are remembered and celebrated? Either way, I hope there are no bad feelings between us and I hope you understand. I’m sure, even without me, you will continue to grow and prosper. I wish you all the best.