Valentine’s Day is a day it’s okay to hate. For some, it’s the day dedicated to force-fitting the expression of genuine feelings into social expectations, without appearing saccharine or heartless, weird or trite, forced or routine. For some who will spend the day in solitude, it’s that special occasion when you find exceedingly trivial others’ frustrated attempts to find a satisfactory gift and dinner reservation, in comparison either with your own loneliness, or with the crude social assumption that, since you are alone, you must be lonely. It’s the day for publicizing love, for turning your heart inside out, for romantic one-upmanship. Like it or not, that intrusive co-worker will probably ask you about your Valentine’s Day on February 15. This year, thank goodness, the day of reckoning falls on a Saturday.
No one in my acquaintance has ever complained to me about Grandparents’ Day or Black History Month, but then again, Grandparents’ Day and Black History Month don’t demand as much of us. They don’t assault our senses in grocery stores, movie theaters, and shopping malls. Perhaps it’s because I’m neither a grandparent nor of African descent, but I’ve never been disappointed after those commemorative occasions. To object to either would be to court contempt unnecessarily, but everyone is permitted to hate Valentine’s Day, an awkward pink-and-red experience in which every couple is expected to participate, but which every individual—coupled or not— is permitted to deplore.
I like Valentine’s Day, mostly because of the appearance of those tasteless, chalky conversation hearts used to exchange dirty little messages like “Hey You,” “Sup Babe,” “Too Cool,” “Be my Icon,” “LOL,” “Tweet Me,” or, with more vintage charm, “Fax Me.” I’m interested in how many of those messages are in the imperative mood, especially since I’m inclined to think love should not be forced. “Kiss Me.” “Love Me.” “Call Me.” “Be Mine.” “Be Nice.” After all that, even “U Go Girl” can feel like a command. Well, we all could use some encouragement and instruction in the area of love, I suppose.
There’s a heart that says “Let’s Read,” the delicious scandal evident to anyone who has met Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno. There are candy hearts with messages in Spanish, ranging from the predictable “Dulce” to the more provocatively insistent “Dale.” With nausea and something like fatal attraction I discovered that vampiric conversation hearts have existed, and perhaps continue to exist. NECCO’s 2009 release of Twilight Sweethearts, marketed as “Forbidden Fruits,” boasted messages like “Bad Guy,” “Live 4 Ever,” and of course, “Bite Me.” The more reserved may purchase peppermint “Cool Hearts,” marked with cheery idioms like “Ice Cold” and “U R Minty.” The girly might indulge in Dazzled Tart Sweethearts, with sayings like “Glam” and “Wild Child” sprinkled with edible glitter, a must-have for the true diva. Today, creative and hard-to-please consumers can customize their candy—16 oz. of sugar, Red #40 and Yellow #5 for just under thirty dollars. They’ve figured out everything except how to make the candy taste good.
Those legible confections all make me smile, more or less, for one reason or another. Stamp words on an otherwise forgettable piece of candy, and the possibilities for amusement are endless. Candy hearts are the T-Shirts of mid-February.
Some of my liturgically minded friends who resist Valentine’s Day hoopla will remind me that February 14 is also Saints Cyril and Methodius Day. Tradition reports that in 9th-century Great Moravia, these brothers from Thessalonica devised a script for the Slavonic language—called glagolitic—so that they could then translate sacred scripture, church liturgy, and the works of the fathers of the Christian church into that tongue. They promoted worship in Old Church Slavonic—the language of the people they served—rather than Latin.
February 14 is then, in a way, a celebration of using the vernacular for the highest form of expression—worship. And I suppose in a reduced way that’s what a conversation heart is trying to do—use the vernacular as gateway to or representation of something as ineffable as love.
The John Milton fan in me can’t help but comment that, according to that thinker (and several of his predecessors), worshipping God is no different from loving him, and both of these are expressed through virtuous action. The entire second half of his De Doctrina Christiana is dedicated to his understanding of Worship/Love/Action. Charity, he has an angel say in Paradise Lost, is the soul of all the rest of the virtues. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love… I am nothing.
It can seem tawdry to reduce love to language, and downright villainous if those words are not backed by actions. There is also a place for silence in love. The greeting card industry depends on our desire to put love into words, on our difficulty in doing so, and on our willingness to let others do the job for us. And yet the highest moments in love do not depend on glib speech. The inexpressibility topos is poetically appropriate whether you are seeing a vision of God in Paradiso or joyfully learning some rich young blonde in Belmont has requited your love— “Madam, you have bereft me of all words,” etc., etc. The more public, commercial, and competitive Valentine’s Day appears to be, the more I sympathize with those who, like Cordelia in King Lear, cannot or will not heave their heart into their mouth. Yes, there is a place for silence in love.
There is also a place for simple, heartfelt communication. And that, I think, is what Cyril, Methodius, and Mr. Valentine himself have in common. I should mention that Valentine’s Day didn’t originate in romance, but it did involve the sending of a letter. There’s a legend that St. Valentine of Rome, imprisoned for his faith, healed his jailer’s daughter of blindness, became her friend while awaiting execution, and before his death sent her a kindly message signed, “Your Valentine.” Simple, powerful, personal words.
So, whether you celebrate February 14 with Valentine or Cyril and Methodius in mind, I hope you have a very literary day. Enjoy the vernacular. Forgive the typos and the SMS abbreviations. Smack your lips over the profound simplicity of “Be Mine.” Marvel in the ability of language to convey thought, however crudely. Sing, O muse, de vulgari eloquentia. Share a message with a loved one. And be careful what you do with those hearts.
For Further Thought or Distraction: