Here is how Valentine’s Day was celebrated when I was in elementary school (yes, approximately 100 years ago, according to my kids): You made a “mailbox” by covering a shoebox with construction paper, and then your classmates distributed Valentines in these mailboxes. This was before the state mandated that we must care about people’s feelings. Children were under no obligation to give cards to all other children in the class. As a result, the most popular kids got cards from everyone in the class, while you could count on receiving three: One from your best friend, one from the boy whose mother made him give a card to everyone, and one from the teacher.
Oh, maybe that only happened to me.
Nowadays in school, they’ve fixed this problem by making kids pretend to like everyone equally. They now must give a card to everyone in the class. This means your child gets 30 cards. Believe me, I am not complaining about that, as I would have loved to receive that many cards as a kid. The cards are not usually addressed to a particular recipient, as this would make distribution lengthy and chaotic. If the cards are from boys, they will have Transformers on them—because nothing says warmth and affection like a robotic killing-machine! If they’re from girls, they will have Hello Kitty on them. I know this sounds sexist, but I have yet to see it go the other way around. There are of course crossover cards, like Harry Potter. However, the Transformers-Hello Kitty divide tells you pretty much all you need to know about the so-called battle of the sexes.
While we’re at it, has anyone else noticed that no matter how many cards your child needs for class, there will be one less than that in the box they sell in the store? “Box contains 29 greetings.” So you have to buy two boxes to get 30 cards. And next year, you will not be able to find where you put the opened box of extra cards, so don’t even think about it.
There will of course be one child who chooses to make all of her cards by hand. I say “her,” because this is almost always a girl. How does this happen, exactly? This child is creating 30 unique drawings and messages, with glitter-sprinkled letters and a heart-shaped lollipop tucked into an origami pocket, and I can’t even get my kid to write his name 30 times. Who are the parents in that house, and have they no pity for us ordinary folk?
I still make the cards I give to my kids. However, when I discussed with them the philosophy behind giving someone a handmade card, the older one said, “That’s so cheap, Mom. It will look like we didn’t want to pay for a card.” Ah, yet another opportunity for that important lesson in values…
In addition to the cards, your child will receive at least 30 pieces of candy, which you will have to hide the same way you hid their excess Halloween candy (yes, of course I mean by eating it yourself after the kids go to bed). I especially like it when the kids bring home sweetheart candies bearing sayings like “Love Stud.” Luckily, the older one is more than happy to explain their meaning to the younger one.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was when my younger child said Valentine cards were optional in his class this year. In other words, if you chose to participate, you still needed to send a card to each child in the class, but you could choose to opt out completely.
I said, “Oh but I’m sure you want to participate in Valentine’s Day, don’t you? Because your friends will be giving you cards, and you’ll want to do the same, right?” I said this as earnestly as possible, believe me, I did. So can I be excused for crossing my fingers behind my back and saying “oh please oh please oh please,” very loudly in my head?
He said, “No. I don’t want to give out cards. None of the boys are doing it.”
“None?” I said.
“Well maybe four of them are. But I don’t want to.”
“Don’t you think your friends will want cards from you?”
“Mom, we’re boys, we don’t care.”
How could I argue with that unassailable logic?
The next day, he asked me, “Mom, can I have $6?”
“Candygram,” he said.
“Are you a land shark?”
“What?” (I don’t know why he doesn’t remember Saturday Night Live, circa 1980, but never mind.)
I thought, maybe this was for charity. “Sounds expensive. What candygram?”
“For Valentine’s Day. They’re one dollar each. You order candy with messages and give them to people.”
“So you want to give your friends candygrams, but not cards?”
I’m still reserving judgment… “Is six enough? Which friends will you give them to?”
“Jim and Mark.”
“Okay, that’s two. Who else?”
“Um, well, four of them are for me.”
About some things, at least, he is unfailingly honest.
This year, I decided that we needed to shake things up a little in terms of our traditional home-based celebration. I thought, why not do something to recognize the history of Valentine’s Day, even though it’s technically not part of my own cultural history.
In an early precursor to today’s celebration, the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, held a festival known as Lupercalia, where they’d sacrifice a goat, two naked young studs would be smeared with the goat’s blood, and then they would run around in loincloths slapping women with the blood-stained goatskins in order to encourage fertility.
This is actually an early precursor to today’s ritual, wherein adolescent boys sit in class and throw spitballs at the girls they like. Wait, maybe that doesn’t happen anymore. My seventh-grader told me that for Valentine’s Day some of the girls at school gave heart-shaped cookies to the boys they knew.
I said, “Hmm, that’s interesting. Did the boys give them anything?”
“No,” he said. “It’s a girl thing.”
Anyway, after the goatskin-slapping, the Luperci held a lottery. The young women placed their names in an urn. Each man chose a name, and then was paired with that woman for the year. In 498, the Pope, who clearly did not approve of the festivities, declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day, and the Roman “lottery” system was outlawed.
I suppose I can anticipate some problems with adapting this tradition. First of all, I’m not sure where to find a goatskin. And second, my husband will almost certainly refuse to wear the loincloth.
I decided that I could still opt for an old-fashioned Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t have to go back quite that far in history. Instead, I went to the closet and found an empty shoebox, decorated it to look like a mailbox, and left it in the kitchen.
And what do you know? I got three Valentines.
The Bethesda Literary Cooperative, a small group of writers and other creative professionals, is seeking new office space. If you have space available, please contact Paula Whyman through her website www.paulawhyman.com.