This Saturday is the 69th anniversary of the day armed thugs disguised as police officers tracked down seven rivals of Al Capone in Chicago. Catching their adversaries off guard, the hit men shot ’em down in cold blood. The RAT-A-TAT-A-TAT of Tommy guns pierced the city sky like the Grim Reaper’s scythe, sending a warning to the underworld: Don’t mess with Scarface Al.
Red was the color. Hearts dripped with blood.
That’s how I remember Valentine’s Day.
Splitting the month like a saccharine scab over the snow-scarred landscape that is February, Valentine’s Day arrives every year to divide America into two camps — people who follow the love herd and people who cling to their sanity. Good taste flies out the window, as the Precious Moments people rake in another fortune and Americans wear more red than ever appeared in Moscow during the height of Stalinism.
The most offensive aspect of Valentine’s Day is the assumption that everyone likes it and wants to participate in its rituals — nobody can be opposed to love, right? Unfortunately, Valentine’s Day also carries with it the implicit pressure that if you don’t observe it, you must somehow not be happy — or, if you are, you must be a romantically undesirable sociopath who has a problem with caring about people. Because of this, people who are not in loving relationships (defined by the Valentine’s marketers as monogamous, romantic and almost always heterosexual) get to spend one evening either locked out of sight or trying not to make eye contact in public places, self-conscious that because they don’t Have Someone, this night is really Not For Them.
The smugness of Valentine’s Day ideology is explicit in this message from the Web site of the U.S. Information Service in Stockholm, Sweden (one of the few “love” sites I could find on the Internet that didn’t require an Adult Check ID): “Americans of all ages love to send and receive Valentines. Handmade Valentines, created by cutting hearts out of colored paper, show that a lot of thought was put into making them personal. Valentines can be heart-shaped, or have hearts, the symbol of love, on them.”
Thank you, Information Service (what are you doing in Stockholm, anyway?) for telling me I love to send and receive valentines. I happen to have witnessed the pain a valentine can bring. Of all the mandatory holiday celebrations in my elementary school, Valentine’s Day invariably caused more tears, arguments and acts of violence than any other. Even though every student was required to give a valentine to everyone — placing extra strain on lower-income families and cheapening genuine affection, Barbara, the girl who always had to wear dirty hand-me-downs and whose parents always came to assemblies drunk (if they came at all) would receive fewer valentines because nobody liked her.
Barbara would always burst into tears. (Barbara could always cry a river. When she was in second grade her 4-year-old brother drowned, and the day she returned from the funeral she cried. Everybody laughed at her and said her salty tears made her smell worse than usual. You think “South Park” is bad? Try my elementary school.) Then the teacher would make everyone stop eating those little candy hearts and tell us that everyone should be loved on Valentine’s Day — when, if it hadn’t been for the teacher’s enforced love, the social pressures that made Barbara cry would never have been in place.
That’s what really happens on Valentine’s Day, although the Information Service doesn’t point that out: “In elementary schools, children make valentines for their classmates and put them in a large decorated box, similar to a mailbox. On February 14, the teacher opens the box and distributes the valentines to each student. After the students read their valentines, they have a small party with refreshments.”
Yeah, right. As you can see, indoctrination begins early.
Some people in my elementary school rebelled. One Valentine’s Day Jessica tried to kiss Matt, so Matt glued her hair to her desk. All us third graders laughed our heads off at that one. But slowly, surely, competition for the most “Will U B Mine” cards with the honeybees on them began to take their effect. By high school, Jessica was a homecoming queen candidate and Matt was on probation. Jessica’s attraction to him had faded — but everyone, including me, awaited Valentine’s Day with anxiety. Would I get a flower from a secret admirer? Should I ask Kara to the Sno-Daze dance? What if my acne flares up? On top of braces, facial hair and the lack of a car, I had to worry about a conformity-breeding holiday too. My resentment grew deeper.
I haven’t always shunned the holiday — in fact, there have been years when I participated in Valentine’s Day quite willingly. Movies, twilight walks, electrifying gazes — all are treasured memories of V-Days past. But even those memories were tainted by the pressures of The Day, knowing that lines for “date” films would be intolerable, knowing that the romantic restaurant dinner would take place among 100 other people also having romantic restaurant dinners, knowing that the next day at school/work/detox everyone would be talking about their romantic interludes, knowing that being in love on that day was merely a commodity, meant only to be exploited for the gain of the Valentine’s Day industry.
The best Valentine’s Day I ever had was the year I watched “Sommersby” at a theater with a potential love interest, even though I had the flu. Insisting that I needed popcorn, I ate about half a box before vomiting (I tried to keep it off her — honest). Using her coat to wipe us off, we calmly left the theater, and she drove us home. I went to bed, she stayed over, finished her homework and slept on the couch. It was the most genuinely caring Valentine’s Day I ever experienced.
It was also our only date.
Valentine’s Day isn’t about genuine affection. It’s about what most things supported by major advertisers are about: making people inadequate while taking their money from them. The Web site says it best: “For teenagers and adults, major newspapers throughout the country have a Valentine’s Day offer. Anyone can send in a message, for a small fee of course, (my emphasis) destined for a would-be sweetheart, a good friend, an acquaintance or even a spouse of fifty years. For a small fee (here we go again) the message is printed in a special section of the newspaper on February 14.”
It’s a good thing we have V-Day so couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversary can look in the newspaper and make sure they still care about each other. It’s a good thing we’re all supposed to send each other cards on Feb. 14 — we certainly can’t be expected to show affection on our own. It’s a good thing we need a day to divide the world into romantic haves and have-nots so we can ostracize people who don’t fit into western cultural conceptions of romantic love — you didn’t know that those candy hearts were contributing to an Orwellian society, did you?
And no, I don’t have a date this year.
But I do have my principles, and I refuse to buckle under the Big Red Oppression. Why does Valentine’s Day exist, anyway? According to the Information Service, there are several legends that surround the day’s origins. In one of them, an Italian bishop named Valentine was imprisoned by Roman pagans for secretly performing Christian marriages. He was burned at the stake.
In another legend, another Valentine — a Christian priest during the era of Roman persecution — was thrown in prison for his teachings. While in prison, Valentine cured the jailer’s daughter of her blindness (forever refuting the truth of the phrase, “love is blind”) through the power of God. For this, he was sentenced to be beheaded. The night before his execution he wrote the daughter, finishing his farewell with “From Your Valentine.” Then, on Feb. 14, he was decapitated.
Scarface Al would have been proud.
Alan Bjerga’s column appears Wednesdays in the Daily. He can be contacted at [email protected]