Under a Bright Blue Sky

Frost

February in upstate New York had the perfect color palette for Valentine’s Day. Snow would fall, snow on snow, and blanket the landscape in white. The icy cold would drive all clouds out of sight and leave the sky a brilliant blue. The sun, in its short trek, would set the snow to glittering and the icicles to sparkling. What better backdrop for cheery red and delicate pink hearts? As a child I loved the holiday.

The festivities started at daybreak. At the breakfast table my sister and I would find a ruby-red, heart-shaped box of chocolates on our placemats, a gift from our parents. At school a half-hour would be set apart for a party. We made the rounds, dropping a simple paper valentine into the manila file pockets that we had each taped to the front of our desks as a mailbox. We were promiscuous lovers, as I recall. No “one and only” for us. We asked each of our thirty-one classmates to be our valentine and everyone ended up with a box bulging with red and pink endearments. We then celebrated our mutual affection with the same eloquent pastel candy hearts that rattle around today. Of course, you might confect a more elegant valentine of construction paper, silver paper doilies, and Elmer’s paste, for your truest loves, that is, your parents and best female friends.

victorian_valentine_with_heart_shaped_wreath_postcard-r4ea9d03b6e684f82a0cd72ab5c431882_vgbaq_8byvr_512

Whom can I thank for all these frothy memories? Not one of the several St. Valentines of the early church who engaged in works of piety, steadfastly ignored sweets, and steadfastly met martyrdoms that might have fallen in February. Nor yet the medievals who merely observed that every bird “chese his make” on the saint’s day, and perhaps drew lots to divine their own “makes.” No, thanks are rather due to the sentimentally extravagant Victorians on both sides of the pond. Valentine’s Day did not become popular in the U.S. until the 1840s, but in that decade the custom of sending heart-sprinkled cards exploded into “valentine mania” with the hearty encouragement of printers and stationers. According to one estimate the number of valentines sent through the New York City mail alone was 15,000 in 1843, 21,000 in 1844, and 30,000 in 1847. The epidemic raged through the 1850s as well, until the onset of a certain civil war dampened the American “craze.” Sober minds and sensitive hearts lamented the commercialism of it all.

scatter hearts

But what’s a little lacy commodification between friends? And why let lovers have all the fun? Indeed, it was a Valentine purveyor, J. M. Fletcher, who first made the suggestion: “Remember that Valentines are appropriate for brothers, sisters, relatives and friends, as well as for sweethearts and lovers.” “We conjure you, one and all, not to neglect this innocent festival,” chimed in another merchant. The Victorian public took them up on the suggestion.[1] And with happy memories of rosy hearts and bright blue skies fresh on my mind, I conjure you, one and all, to do the same. Think of all the people you love. Scatter hearts like hoarfrost!

And don’t forget the chocolates.

 

[1] With appreciation for the scholarship of Leigh Eric Schmidt, “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday,” Winterthur Portfolio, 1993.

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