Feb. 14, 2011

For You, Friend

by Ted Kooser

this Valentine's Day, I intend to stand
for as long as I can on a kitchen stool
and hold back the hands of the clock,
so that wherever you are, you may walk
even more lightly in your loveliness;
so that the weak, mid-February sun
(whose chill I will feel from the face
of the clock) cannot in any way
lessen the lights in your hair, and the wind
(whose subtle insistence I will feel
in the minute hand) cannot tighten
the corners of your smile. People
drearily walking the winter streets
will long remember this day:
how they glanced up to see you
there in a storefront window, glorious,
strolling along on the outside of time.

"For You, Friend", by Ted Kooser, from Valentines. © University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Valentine's Day.

Everyone agrees that Valentine's Day is named for a Christian martyr named St. Valentine. The problem is, there are at least three St. Valentines, all of them martyrs, and not much is known about any of them. One St. Valentine — Valentine of Terni, from the second century A.D. — was a bishop, and he was martyred in Rome, but that's all we know. According to legend, another St. Valentine — Valentine of Rome — bravely disobeyed the Roman Emperor Claudius II, who had forbidden young men from getting married because he thought unmarried men made better soldiers. Valentine married people anyway, and he was executed on this day in the year 270 A.D. At some point, it was claimed that both of these saints were martyred on February 14th, but there is no reason to think that it is true in either case.

In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote "Parlement of Foules," and he wrote: "For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate." From this couplet, some people infer that there was an old tradition that birds choose their mates in mid-February, and therefore, it made sense that people would do the same. The problem is that there was another St. Valentine, St. Valentine of Genoa, who died on May 3rd and whose feast day was celebrated on May 2nd, which seems like a more reasonable time for birds to be mating. Also, Chaucer wrote the poem to celebrate the first anniversary of the engagement between King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, and their marriage treaty had been signed May 2nd, 1381. So Chaucer was probably referring to the May 2nd Valentine's Day, but it was misunderstood as February 14th.

Either way, February 14th was a convenient time for the Christian Church to have a holiday because it coincided with an ancient fertility festival that was celebrated every year between February 13th and February 15th. The festival was called Lupercalia, and it was partially to honor Lupa, the legendary wolf who suckled the orphaned twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who went on to found the city of Rome. Lupercalia itself was building on an even older festival, called Februa, associated with cleansing and fertility — it is from Februa that we get the name February. For Lupercalia, goats and a dog were sacrificed, and then two high-ranking young men representing Romulus and Remus went up to the altar and had their faces smeared with the sacrificial blood. After the blood was wiped off with wool dipped in milk, the men stripped naked, cut strips of skin from the sacrificed goats, and ran around the city, joined by other enthusiastic young men. Women who wanted to get pregnant would position themselves so that they could be flogged on the backside with these strips, which was supposed to cleanse them and make them fertile. Lupercalia was a very popular festival, and it was still widely practiced even during the fifth century, more than 150 years after the Roman Empire was officially Christian. It is easy to see why the Church would have been happy to have a different sort of holiday take its place.

Perhaps because of misinterpreting Chaucer, by the turn of the 15th century, St. Valentine's Day was known as a day to celebrate romantic love. The Duke of Orleans is credited with writing the first valentine, from captivity in the Tower of London, when he wrote St. Valentine's Day love poems to his wife. In Hamlet, Ophelia sings about Saint Valentine's day; she says, "I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine." In 1797, a British publisher came out with The Young Man's Valentine Writer, which suggested sentimental poems for young men who were not good poets themselves. Soon after, young men no longer had to write down verses — postage got so cheap that it was realistic to send valentines in the mail, and mass-produced valentines were available for purchase. In 1913, Hallmark started making valentine cards.

These days, Valentine's Day is a big event in the consumer world. Last year, the average person spent $103 on Valentine's gifts, food, and entertainment — and that was lower than average because of the recession. The numbers differ by gender too — last year, men spent an average of $135 and women $72.

On this day in 1842, the most desirable place to be in New York was at the Valentine's Day "Boz Ball," held in honor of the novelist Charles Dickens, (books by this author) who published his early stories under the pseudonym "Boz." He had not yet published most of his most great books: A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1849), A Tale of Two Cities (1849), and Great Expectations (1860) were all still to come. But already he was a huge celebrity. Dickens and his wife, Catherine, had arrived in Boston on January 22nd, and the city welcomed them with all sorts of events, until "Boston" was being called "Boz-town." New Yorkers were determined to outdo Boston, so they organized a planning committee. Boston's major Dickens event had been a dinner for men only, so New York decided to give a ball and include women. The ball was at the Park Theater, New York's largest venue, which could hold 3,000 people. Three thousand tickets sold out immediately at $5 apiece, which was quite a bit in those days. Only the most elite society members were welcome — each guest was thoroughly vetted before being allowed to attend. New Yorkers who didn't make it in were trying to spend up to $40 to get a ticket.

The Boz Ball was unprecedented. Thousands of dollars were spent on decorations. There was a bust of Dickens with a bald eagle hanging above it, holding a laurel wreath. There were huge banners, decorated with scenes from his books. There were elaborate displays to represent each state. The New Yorkers were dressed in their finest. People had trouble dancing because there was simply not enough room, but they did it anyway, and the dances alternated with performances from Dickens' books. In a letter to a friend, Dickens called it "the most splendid, gorgeous, brilliant affair you ... can possibly conceive."

From the archives:

On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde's (books by this author) play The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. He wrote the first draft in just 21 days, the fastest he'd ever written anything. The play tells the story of a man named Jack Worthing who pretends to have a younger brother named Earnest. Jack uses the imaginary Earnest as an excuse for getting out of all kinds of situations, and even pretends to be Earnest when that suits his purposes. At the same time, Jack's friend Algernon Moncrieff also begins impersonating the imaginary Earnest. When two women fall in love with Jack and Algernon, they both think they are in love with a man named Earnest. It comes out in the end that Jack and Algernon are themselves actually long-lost brothers.

Wilde said that The Importance of Being Earnest expressed his philosophy that "we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." To a friend he wrote that The Importance of Being Earnest was "a trivial play ... written by a butterfly for butterflies." But it was his greatest success. The actor who played Algernon Moncrieff later said, "In my 53 years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest."

Wilde showed up at a rehearsal for the play a few days before the opening, wearing his trademark green carnation pinned onto a three-piece maroon suit. After watching the actors for a few minutes he said, "Yes, it is quite a good play. I remember I wrote one very like it myself, but it was even more brilliant than this."

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