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Yesterday’s romance

Schlesinger Library

How you feel about Valentine’s Day tomorrow depends on where you are on the romantic roller coaster.

Is your great love in the rearview mirror, is it still waiting for you in the future, or is it happening now? All of these are good. Past love is a rich source of nostalgia and memories which are usually better than the real thing. Future love is incredibly exciting and romantic, because it will certainly be perfect, and present love is present happiness. Only the last two require Valentine cards.

This charming tradition seems to be fading, although not because of any lack of effort on the part of the Valentine industry. On December 31 last year, and this is absolutely true, the first Valentine cards, chocolates, and plush bears appeared in our local supermarket, 45 days before zero hour.

But this anxious commercial overreach is yet another sign that Valentine’s Day is running out of steam. It’s been around at least since the 1800s and, like most festivals that have a long history, it has lost almost all its original meaning.

Valentine’s Day began as a special day for lovers, hopeful lovers, and sometimes ex-lovers. The original Valentines were hand painted and hand written, but at the beginning of the 19th century Mr. J.C.Hall of Hallmark, began mass-producing Valentines. The sentiments and the poems were churned out by hack writers, and probably these days by computer Chatbots, so that the typical Valentine became about as personal as an electricity bill.

Well into my lifetime Valentines had a playful side because of their anonymity. The idea was to create a sense of secrecy and surprise. It was a transparent anonymity in most cases, but there was always the possibility of getting a card from a genuinely unknown admirer, and trying to guess who he or she was. That’s the very essence of romance — mystery. From the sender’s point of view, it was a safe yet exciting way of approaching someone previously admired from afar. Would they guess the identity of the sender? It was always possible to drop hints.

In the domestic 1950s the card companies decided that romantic lovers were just too small a market to be profitable. They began to promote Valentine’s Day as a family thing. The market exploded. Now the local card store has Valentines for children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, dogs and goldfish and teachers. They even come in packets of six, which may be convenient for our local Don Juans but scarcely contributes to the atmosphere of romance.

Young people who have grown up with this kind of Valentine’s Day, writing cards to their teachers or their goldfish, are hardly likely to associate it with romantic love. A true Valentine was tentative, risky, a shot in the dark, reaching out to touch someone who might or might not be receptive Now there’s no suspense, and no mystery.

But today, February 13 provides a kind of alternative. If romance is not on the horizon or in the mailbox you might wish to know that, since 2008 this date has been designated National Self-Love Day. As Oscar Wilde said: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” Self- love requires no card, no flowers, and no expensive dinner, and it leaves no time for anybody else.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.