"If you are a Valentine's Day refusnik, and find the whole thing unbearably blush-making, don't blame the eponymous Saint. According to the Roman Directory of Saints, as reliable a 15th Century directory as you are likely to get, we know remarkably little about the Saint in whose name so many helium-filled balloons and heart-shaped pillows are sold. In fact, he is a bit of a mixture of dates and actions, many of which could be attributed to at least different fourteen people. He was martyred for refusing to worship Roman gods, may have cured his jailer's daughter of blindness, and may have been clubbed to death, beheaded, or stoned. Beheading seems to have played a part, since his skull, garlanded rather prettily with flowers, turned up in a town outside Rome. Pope Gregory, clearly in expansive mood, gave it to Whitefriars Carmelite Church in Dublin in 1836. It was there that he became associated with young people, who rather took to him, and began popping in to pray for guidance on matters of the heart. A few youngster's punctured romances were mended, or got going, after they had asked St Valentine to intercede for them, and the next thing you know he was your go-to guy for love .
The Victorians, never people to miss a commercial opportunity, began the practice of making little cards and tokens for his feast day on the 14th February. And very charming they were too. Carefully wrought paper lace, tiny pop-ups of flowers and cupids, and sedate effusions on the topic of how honoured the supplicant would be should the recipient deign to look in their direction.
Compare and contrast, if you will, with some of the Valentine's cards for sale in 2011. Greased bare bodies, references to genitals, crude doggerel and vile comparisons between the physical attributes of the beloved and a wide selection of vegetables abound. Not pretty, rarely funny, and rather depressing, The softer end of the market expresses romantic feelings through the depictions of small , unlikely fluffy animals, and pink holds sway. Equally dismaying. People also (but for how long?) go to the time and expense of putting messages in the personal columns of newspapers, a practice which may appear as arcane and quaint to us in a few years as does the hand-made Victorian card, with printed matter becoming as rare as the egg of the Dodo. "Belly-welly loves Chunky Thighs for evva"; things like that appear in the Times, for goodness sake.
So far, so money-spinning. However, a mere card is not enough. There must be gifts, flowers,mini-breaks, or at the very least, a grim February evening spent in a restaurant which has doubled its prices and halved its menu for the occasion. There one can gaze at one's adored,in the setting of an over-busy bistro and in the company of couples who are unlikely to be feeling relaxed. Conversation will be drowned by ear-shattering howling from Mariah or Celine. The only recourse is to drink heavily,after which a nasty row may well ensue. When I worked in a hospital, A&E was always particularly busy on the evening of Valentine's Day, and nursing staff tended towards bitterness of mood, as their own romantic plans were either blighted by shift times or sadly non-existent.
So my advice would be to ignore the whole thing very firmly indeed. Of course, I may be sour and jaundiced as I have never been the kind of girl to inspire gestures of romance,although other gestures have been made towards me regularly. Several of which have required police intervention. Many years ago,someone left a chocolate cake on my parent's doorstep on Valentine's Day. My Father trod in it and had to go to work with chocolate all over his turn-ups, leaving the path looking like a dirty protest.
When I taught in a college in London, 14th Feb was a Big Deal. My female students would be hysterical to the point of demonic possession for several days before the event, and often strangely subdued or tearful after it. The boys just looked more bewildered, obtuse, or smug than ever, depending on their hotness stock value. Because I worked in an environment that included sixteen (at least) different ethnicities, languages, cultures and faiths, this Western love-fest often brought about some interesting conflicts and tensions. Student Counsellors would be rushed off their feet, and student's parents were never off the phone, as all our youngsters went to Shakespearian lengths to fall in love with the wrong people. Then all the older folk either tried to stop them,or to offer access to contraceptive advice, depending on outlook. It was mayhem.
Now of course I am far too old to have any interest in this nonsense, as indeed I was at eighteen. But my son is coming up to the age where Valentine's Bacchanals are being planned by Twitter and by mobile, the twin modern gods presiding over contemporary copping-off. And one thing still stands as true in his day as it was in mine, regarding the fateful February 14th. Almost every humiliation and rejection can be glossed over, save one. And that is to be publicly outed as the recipient of a sole Valentine's Card - from one's Mother".
Reporting from Liverpool Liz Lacey 04/02/12