Tuesday, February 12, 2008

It's Goat-skin Thong Time Again

(News-Herald, February 2002) Well, it’s Valentine’s Day again. Is there any other holiday that so aptly harnesses love and guilt in a stew of commercial blackmail? Christmas has too many different shades of meaning attached, but on Valentine’s Day there’s no room for doubt—if you didn’t send a present/card/heart-bedecked token it can only mean that You Don’t Really Care. Want to keep your relationship (or prospective portion thereof) alive? Then fork over some money at the store of your choice.

I felt moved this week to do some actual research. It would be easy to assume that Valentine’s Day is purely a creation of cardsellers and florists, but in fact it has a history long enough to be vague and mysterious.

Some authorities link VD to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. This festival was celebrated February 15 to coincide roughly with the coming of spring (the calendar has shifted a bit since those days) and, depending on your authority, was meant to either A) chase away wolves and/or B) ensure fertility of flocks, fields and folks of Rome.

Goats and dogs would be sacrificed on Palatine Hill, after which Roman men would run through the streets with thongs cut from the fresh goat-skins, lashing women in the streets as they went. I have no idea how such a fun tradition was lost over the years; perhaps one of the local Chambers of Commerce would like to revive it locally.

Somehow we get from Lupercalia to St. Valentine, who was any one of three martyred saints.

One story associates Valentine with illegal marriages. The Emperor Claudius II allegedly outlawed marriages in order to increase the supply of single men for soldiering (he felt that married men made lousy soldiers, though it seems to me ancient Roman single guys would have been preoccupied with goat-skin thong flogging). Valentine stood up for True Love by marrying folks in secret.

Another story has Valentine in prison, falling in love with a woman who may or may not have been A) blind and/or B) the jailor’s daughter. Supposedly he sent her a note saying “From your Valentine.” At any rate, Valentine was dispatched around 270 AD. Pope Gelasius tagged February 14 with his name around 498 AD.

February 14 has carried a number of charming traditions. At one point, the bachelors of a city would draw single women’s names from an urn, thereby acquiring a partner for the following year; that was eventually outlawed as un-Christian.

February 14, back when it was the beginning of spring, was thought to be the day that birds chose their mates. In keeping with the bird theme, another belief was that if a woman saw a robin fly overhead on VD, she would marry a sailor. A sparrow signified a poor man, and a goldfinch meant a millionaire.

If she was really brave, she could go to the graveyard and run around the church twelve times at midnight, chanting. A less ambitious maid could stand at her window on VD morning; the first man she saw walking by either was, or resembled, the man she would marry within the year. My sources don’t say anything about whether he had to be carrying a goat-skin thong or not. There is also no record of any VD tradition calling for bachelors to sleep till noon.

Charles, Duke of Orleans sent the earliest valentines to his wife while he was locked up in the Tower of London. Commercially created valentines first appeared around 1800. Early versions contained such romantic zingers as “My orb of day departs with thee.” Esther A. Howland started cranking out mass-produced American cards in the 1840’s. Today an estimated 1 billion cards are sold each year (second behind 2.6 billion for Christmas).

Canada, the UK, Mexico, France and Australia celebrate VD; in many Islamic countries, it is illegal, but celebrated quietly underground.

My favorite VD treat, those little candy hearts, have been factory-made since 1902. NECCO, the current manufacturers, regularly rotate the little sayings. New sayings for 2002 include “IN STYLE,” “DIVA,” “WHAT’S UP,” and “URA QT.” NECCO notes that some outdated sayings over the years have been permanently retired, such as “DIG ME” and “YOU ARE GAY.”

My box included “HUG ME,” “PAGE ME,” and “MARRY ME.” Plus one with a smiley face. Before being factory-made, candy hearts were made with paper notes inside with classy sentiments such as “Please send a lock of your hair by return mail.” It’s no “My orb of day departs with thee,” but it still beats being flogged with a goat-skin thong.

No comments:

From my Flickr