The annual rite: dumbing down love

It's Valentine's Day, the annual rite of cringing for the single and dateless.

This year none of my single girlfriends will get asked February's famous question: "Wilt thou be mine?"

There will be no asking, but there will be a lot of wilting. Nothing can make you feel like love's orphan more than that winged, pudgy brat with the bow and arrow.

Some of my friends get around the annual cringe-fest by sending cards to friends and family, but I don't. I refuse to participate in the dumbing down of love. Saint Valentine was the patron saint of love, not friendship. He didn't die defending our right to trade business cards, he died defending our right to exchange vows.

You see, there really was a guy named Valentine. And he died at the hands of Roman Emperor Claudius II. Here's how it happened: Around 269 AD the emperor couldn't figure out why so few of his citizenry volunteered for his bloody, endless, and unnecessary wars. In a fit of intemperate brilliance, Claudius seized on the notion that men weren't volunteering for his relentless wars because they didn't want to leave their wives and girlfriends.

True to his nickname, Claudius the Cruel banned all marriages and engagements. This was distressing economic news to wedding planners, florists, and assorted banquet-room managers. But no one was more distressed than a priest by the name of Valentine. Claudius could rule the people, but Valentine wasn't going to let him rule their hearts. So the priest conducted marriages in secret.

Unfortunately, being a friend to the people made him an enemy of the state. Emperors don't like being told they're wearing no clothes by men of the cloth. Claudius arrested Valentine and threw him in jail, where he died, as my friends do annually, on Feb. 14.

Before his death, the priest had fallen in love with the jailer's daughter. Legend has it he left the daughter a note and signed it "From your Valentine."

Those three words set off a stampede of cheap sentiment through the next 20 centuries. Gradually Feb. 14 became the date for exchanging love messages, and by the looks on the faces of my friends, the date when you are reminded you have no date.

The Greeting Card Association estimates we'll buy over 1 billion valentine cards this year, which gives Hallmark the GNP of a small country. ("It's the economy, Cupid!")

We can all blame the post office for the popularity of the valentine cards some of us never get. Until the mid-1800s, the cost of sending mail was way beyond the means of the average lover. And worse, the postal service demanded payment from the recipient of the letter, not the sender. Imagine receiving a valentine card, paying the postage due, and finding out it came from somebody you've been trying to avoid.

Last year on Valentine's Day, a single girlfriend called me up, heaving her annual sighs over the line. Dateless again, she still believed in love. "Omnia vincit amor" she croaked unconvincingly in Latin ("Love conquers all").

"Oh, yeah?" I asked. "Then where was Saint Valentine on Feb. 15?"

Michael Alvear is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.

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