Friday, February 13, 2009
Ok, just let me preface this by saying that I'm happily married and not entirely unromantic. I like love. Love is nice. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, it does.
Valentine's day, however, isn't about love. No, despite all the hearts and cupids and sexy innuendo, Valentine's day is about selling you stuff.
Most holidays are, these days, of course. But at least other holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas have some substance beneath the crassly over-commercialized surface. With Valentines' day, there's just no there there. At least, not anymore. The whole thing used to be kind of cool; back in the pre-Roman empire days when it was referred to as Lupercalia. But the cutesy teddy-bear laden, bouquet-bearing current incarnation has strayed so far from its roots that it has rendered itself unrecognizable, doomed to be discarded as a hollow, empty exercise in pressuring people to buy stuff, boosting the sales of greeting cards and cheap chocolates, and filling the reservation books of restaurants during an otherwise flaccid February.
But before it became the fuzzy feel-good Valentine's Day, this Hallmark holiday was a pagan fertility festival known as Lupercalia, where men donned goat skins and employed whips to spank women in hopes of increasing their virility. The festival was traditionally kicked off by a ceremony which included a sacrifice of male goats and dogs, whose blood was used to anoint the foreheads of young men. These men would then strip down naked, covering themselves only with the freshly-skinned pelts of the sacrifice animals, fashion whips out of these same skins, and run around town, delivering lashes to young women who would line the parade route, in hopes of receiving the ceremonial spankings, which were said to prevent sterility and stave off the pain of any future childbearing.
Damn. Now that's a party. Today, we get fondue by candlelight and Whitman's samplers.
As with many pagan holidays, the fun ended when the Christians co-opted the holiday and cleaned it up. The Romans did away with the trappings of the pagan craziness around the fifth century, and somehow the whole deal got latched to some guy named Valentine, a priest who reportedly flouted a law imposed by Roman Emperor Claudius II, which forbade young men to marry, thinking that single men would make for better soldiers. Valentine broke the law, married young couples, and, once this was discovered, Claudius ordered him to be put to his death. The church eventually bestowed him with the "Saint" tag, and the rest is history. Or lore.
Awwwww. Isn't that sweet? Makes me want to go spend a lot of money on mail-order lingerie and cute teddy bears. NOT.
If the whole thing was just about getting a card, a box of chocolates, and having a nice quiet romantic dinner somewhere, it would be bearable. But it's not. It's become this massive industry--Americans will spend about $15 billion this year on V-day related stuff, despite the poor economy--that aims squarely at our insecurities and baser instincts as a means to separate us from our hard-earned cash.
Have you seen (or heard) some of the ads these companies run? One that I've seen repeatedly this V-day season is run by a company in Vermont that sells teddy bears (I shan't link them) and the commercial is so chock full of cheesy gender stereotypes that it almost feels like an SNL skit. The virile-looking, cubicle-dwelling guy pumps his fist after ordering up the $70 stuffed bear that will surely enable him to score! The gaggle of women ooh and ahh over the cute widdle teddy bear as the trampy-looking lucky recipient lasciviously brags about how her man will be getting a "special surprise" later that night.
The cheaply-produced minute-long spot has been running on cable news channels all this week and, frankly, it left me feeling like I needed a shower. Men are all and only about getting laid. Women are all and only about using their sexuality as a means to getting gifts. Not to mention the whole infantilization thing that gifts of sexy leather-clad teddy bears conjures up. Gross.
Our culture already puts enough pressure on us to meet, mate, and reproduce without these companies using this impulse to sell schlocky made-in-China garbage. Although, who can blame'em, I guess? They're just doing what they can to make a buck. The real problem is our "I'm so special" culture which sends out repeated signals that we must all compare ourselves to celebrities and royalty. People watch these gossip shows and read People magazine and see what Brad gave to Angelina for V-day and feel compelled to try and measure up. And the media and advertising agencies are willing, enabling accomplices.
As a married guy with a spouse who agrees with me about this, it's easy enough for me to turn my back on it--the most we do is buy cards and I make a nice dinner. But the folks I really feel bad for is those who are single on days like New Year's and V-day. The buzz over these couple-centric holidays becomes so pervasive in the weeks leading up to it, that it really makes people feel bad about being solo, so it ends up just being a big stressor.
And for couples this is true as well. Expectations are so built up, and there's so much pressure to be lovey-dovey, that what actually happens is inevitably a let-down. Break-ups and fights are all too common. A bouquet of a dozen roses and a few chocolate-dipped strawberries would be a wonderful surprise on most other days, but on V-day, many guys would be seen as not going the extra mile if this is all that they came up with. Too cliche. Yawn. Not enough effort or thought put into it. She just watched on TV about how Tom gave Katie a rose-petal-strewn, chocolate-covered Bentley that releases doves when she opens the moon roof....
Even if things do live up to the hype--what then? Life goes back to its un-romantic, humdrum, bleh normalcy the very next day for the next 364? What kind of weirdness is that? It seems so strange to somehow distill all the symbolic romance and sexiness of our relationship into one officially-sanctioned day where we are forced to compete with all the other couples' relationships and strive to measure up. Wouldn't it be better to spread it out over the longer-term? And to go to the romantic restaurant on a Tuesday night in June when they're perhaps not so crammed full of nuzzling two-tops?
Even worse is the strangeness of selling this adult holiday to children. My kid's pre-school is having a V-day party and has been making construction paper hearts for the last week. What is that about? He's four, fer Chrissakes! Does he really need to be getting messages about romance and love from his school? I realize that adults find it cute to see four year old boys giving cute little chintzy paper valentines to four year old girls all dressed up in their cute little red velvet outfits, but I find it freaky to be pushing these kind of messages about love, coupling, and (implicitly) sex onto four year olds. And I'm not even going to address these creepy daddy-daughter dances people go to. Whoa. I mean, I love my daughter. Just not that way.
Is there a name for someone who's this Grinch-like and Scroogy about Valentine's Day? If there is, I'm it. I don't know if I'm coming off as curmudgeonly or just generally misanthropic, but it is what it is. Think of me what you will.
Our go-to V-day tradition has, in past years, been the heart-shaped pizzas over at Barnaby's Family Inn in Niles. You don't even have to ask for it--all pizzas sold that day are heart-shaped. I happened to stumble onto this one year and we've tended to do it every year. They don't charge extra or anything and the dark, spooky-feeling pub filled with screaming kids running around is somehow a perfect anti-V-day setting that suits me just fine.
That's where we tend to go for V-day, although maybe there's something to be said for trying to get back to the roots of the holiday and embracing the whole Lupercalia gestalt. We'd have to get ourselves some goats, I suppose. And it might get a bit too messy, what with the sacrificing, and the blood ritual and all.
On second, thought, maybe instead of sacrificing a live male goat, we'll just go get some birria, and instead anointing myself with blood, I could, uh, smear some of the broth all over my chest or something. Probably best to not even bring up the whole spanking thing to my wife.