Peter Bromhead: Sour taste to the day of romance

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As lovers are sucked in by commercialism, Peter Bromhead muses on Vinegar Valentines.

Picture / Peter Bromhead
Picture / Peter Bromhead

Those blissfully whispering sweet nothings in each other's ear under the illusion they're celebrating something special today, should think again.

The reality is, nobody has any idea who Valentine really was, or why romance is associated with his name.

Apparently a number of Christian martyrs were named Valentine, including a Roman priest who suffered martyrdom about AD 269 followed by another namesake who met the same fate in AD 197 after being persecuted under the Emperor Aurelian.

In the 1969 revision of the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints the feast-day of Saint Valentine on February 14 was removed from the General Roman Calendar because nothing other than the burial sites are known about these two gentlemen.

The date itself probably has its roots in a pagan rite celebrating fertility in ancient Rome, observed from February 13 through to the 15th. It seems likely the Christian church may have decided to re-invent Valentine's feast day in an effort to Christianise the former rite.

Ironically, commerce has taken the event full circle and it now resembles a pagan extravaganza again.

It's unclear how the day became romantically linked in English-speaking countries. Historically, there are references to the celebration in the Middle Ages both in Chaucer's works and later recorded in Shakespeare's plays.

Paper Valentines were popular in England in the 1800s, but it was the Americans who cranked up the commercial opportunities when Esther Howland, of Massachusetts, received a Valentine's card from England which inspired her to create a range of pictorial cards.

Her 19th century prints foreshadowed today's mass-commercialisation where mawkish greeting cards now run a close second behind Christmas cards.

Today however, it's not enough to simply just give a card. The retail industry has long seized St Valentine (whoever he was) as the iconic prop to sell a wide range of gifts, spear-headed by over-priced roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates.

Marketing, particularly in the US, is a relentless mixture of syrupy promotional techniques aimed at pricking both the romantically tormented and the casual swinger.

No wonder it is sometimes jokingly referred to in the United States as Singles Awareness Day. The cynical would suggest that Valentine's Day is the first compulsory retail tax day following Christmas Day, which of course is propped up by another mythological figure, Santa Claus.

Thankfully, not all the world believes in the event.

In India, Hindu fundamentalists oppose the celebration as Western cultural pollution, and in Saudi Arabia, the religious police have banned the sale of all goods referring to the day.

As a cartoonist, I am sometimes asked to produce greeting cards commemorating the occasion, but always decline, explaining I'm 150 years too late to enjoy the original practice of Vinegar Valentines, cards created to insult the lovelorn.

Part of the sting to receiving these acerbic cards in the 1800s, was the receiver was also the person who paid for the postage.

The messages and illustrations typically consisted of caustic barbs about being overweight, ugly or being left on the shelf.

My personal favourite Valentine's Day cartoon is by the French cartoonist Sempé, who once drew a rather pompous elderly man sitting in an armchair, filling his pipe talking to a younger man, while his wife in the background - slaves in the kitchen.

He states to the younger man, "The important thing in life is to love unconditionally. I, for example, love veal stew."

In conclusion, I understand February 14 is regarded by some of the more romantically inclined as the perfect occasion to commence wedded bliss.

If I were in the Vinegar Valentine business, I would send all those hopeful couples a card with a couplet from the late Frank Muir:

'The glances over cocktails that seemed so sweet Don't seem as amorous over Shredded Wheat.'

- Herald on Sunday

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