With Valentine’s Day right rapidly approaching, stores are filled with frilly red and pink consumer enticement, and every guilt-inducing commercial seems to be designed to send the message that diamonds and flowers are the only way to let someone know you care. So what, exactly, is this mysterious emotion of love and why did I fall helplessly into the trap of decorating nearly every inch of our home in its honor this year?
As writers do, I researched every aspect of love — because far be it from me to believe I have the answers to something that has confused history’s greatest thinkers! What I discovered is that no one can really define love clearly. Once you nail down an almost-satisfactory definition, you realize “it’s close, but no cigar.”
Perhaps that’s because love is not only elusive, but its definition is ever-changing. What love means changes with time, both personally and universally. And yet, the fact that living beings need one another, need to be touched and valued, remains constant.
What’s love got to do with it?
The origins of Valentine’s Day are as hazy as love itself.
According to Catholicism, there were three saints named Valentine, all of whom lived during 3rd Century AD. A host of legendary tales offer opinions as to how the beheading of St. Valentine of Rome, ordered by the Roman Emperor Claudius II, eventually morphed into what we now celebrate as a day of love. What we do know is that the Patron Saint of Love was martyred on February 14, 270 AD for assisting persecuted Christians and secretly marrying Christian couples.
In Rome, a pagan ritual, Lupercalia, held on February 15 celebrated fertility and love; it also involved random matchmaking and the sacrificing of animals. It was heavily laden with the physical abuse of women, all done as part of the “festivities.” Because of its violent nature and irreverent practices, Pope Gelasius I abolished Lupercalia and declared February 14 a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine.
It's difficult to imagine how something that began as a bawdy pagan ritual and had nothing whatsoever to do with romantic love evolved into something sentimental that we now celebrate annually. The theories of how Valentine’s Day came to be directly associated with passionate love are still not totally clear.
This big leap is not only hypothesized in stories of the Catholic Saints and Lupercalia; it's been credited to everything from the mating pattern of birds in February to Chaucer’s late 14th century poem, “Parliament of Foules.”
Still, the exact origin of the day we now associate with chocolates and flowers remains pure speculation.
Be my Valentine
Which person sent the first actual paper Valentine is another unknown. Some say it was the incarcerated St. Valentine, who was both depressed and infatuated with his jailer’s daughter. Others argue that the first greeting was a love poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was being held prisoner in the Tower of London. That poem remains in the British Library of London.
The oldest known declaration of love written in the English language was a poem written to her fiancé by Margery Brews.
Eventually, the European, Victorian-era custom of sending written tokens of love made its way across the pond in 1847, thanks to the enterprising Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts. Today, the Valentine’s card industry she began has grown into an annual $18.2 billion business, according to the National Retail Federation.
When “ACTION!” speaks louder than words
Sometimes our sought-after paper greetings are accompanied by dinner and a movie.
Leave it to Hollywood to light up the silver screen with fantasies that rarely meet with reality. But how many sentimental Baby Boomers can resist the classic, passionate, volatile chemistry between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? Or the enduring love between the beautiful, doe-eyed Lauren Bacall and her legendary Bogie?
It was that indefinable magic that kept strong a 25-year affair between on-screen lovers Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Tracy remained married through it all, but their creative simpatico and sexual chemistry produced nine unforgettable movies. Hepburn never publicly admitted their mutual feelings until the death of Tracy’s wife in 1983.
Some of the greatest love stories ever told happened right before our eyes while moviegoers munched on popcorn. “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Ghost,” “An Affair to Remember” and “The Way We Were” have given us memorable glimpses of loves that surpass understanding. But, in many cases, they have also presented false impressions of romance that can lead to unrealistic expectations of what day-to-day love is all about.
Not all love is tragic and I, for one, cannot resist tuning in every single time “When Harry Met Sally” airs. I never get tired of spending a couple of hours with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, whose combined talent and chemistry make their characters so believable in this rom-com favorite.
Whether it's black and white films produced "before our time" or present-day movies, there's nothing better than a two-hour escape from reality in the form of on-screen love.
Sitcoms, words and music
Some of Hollywood’s more realistic loves come in the form of television comedy. It only takes a 30-minute virtual trip to Hooterville’s Lisa (Zsa Zsa Gabor) and Oliver (Eddie Albert) to experience proof that opposites attract. Despite their differences, high-maintenance Hungarian Lisa never bailed — never headed back to Manhattan, leaving Oliver to deal with dim-witted Eb and the lovable resident pig, Arnold. Nope, Lisa endured his “country side” and she and her lack of kitchen skills hung in there, season after season.
From 1965 to 1971, fans actually got up from their sofas to switch the television channel to CBS in time to see if Oliver's high-maintenance housewife might finally conquer the fine art of hotcake preparation.
Life, and perhaps love, was easier back then.
(Click on the arrow to see Lisa's pitifully failed attempt to make edible hot cakes)
From the 1960s’ Rob (Dick Van Dyke) and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) Petrie to a more current Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) Crane, well-written comedies are there to remind us that it takes a good sense of humor to stay in the game when times get rough. (Just ask my poor, patient spousal unit, Lanny; Goodness knows, I drag him into more than his share of Lucy and Ricky shenanigans …)
On rainy days and long nights, nothing works better to soothe the soul than a good read and a cup of hot tea. I doubt there’s a room in our house that doesn’t claim at least one book. Through the years, I have enjoyed my share of romance novels. Literature, poetry and even steamy chick-lit all hold their places on my bookshelves. While Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice certainly ranks highly, Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and The Bridges of Madison County (Robert James Waller) are right up there at the top of my list.
And yes, sitting right beside those wonderful hardcovers is my copy of the Fifty Shades series.
Music picks up where mere words fail when it comes to any kind of emotion. I could go into my favorite songs, singers and singer/songwriters, but that’s a topic for another time. What I will say, is that — for me— the song that most defines real love in an understandable way was written by a man who gave his fans the impression that he didn’t have a serious bone in his body, Jerry Reed. (Click on the blue "Video Link to hear the song)
"Thing Called Love" (Video Link)
You can't see it with your eyes, Hold it in your hand. But like the wind, it covers our land, Strong enough to move the heart of any man, This thing called love.
It can lift you up, Never let you down, Take your world and turn it all around, Ever since time, nothing's ever been found, That's stronger than love.
Galentines and other loves
Admittedly, for some unknown reason, I went a little overboard with my Valentine’s Day decorations. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t quite finished celebrating Christmas; or maybe it’s just a renewed sense of sentimentality. But for whatever reason, our home is filled with reds and pinks, flowers and candles. The cookies are baked and decorated. My handmade paper clutches are ready to be filled with treats.
The new trend is to celebrate friends as well as lovers, and I think the trend is needed. So, Gals, don’t forget to remember your “Galentines.” After all, there are many people who come into our lives that we honestly love in a way that has nothing to do with sexuality or romance. (See the Ancient Greeks’ Eight Types of Love below)
When left to their own devices, my memories take me back to grade school, when sticky-sweet Kool-Aid and chocolate chip cookies were part of our annual Valentine’s Day party. Carefully decorated cardboard shoe boxes lined with frilly crepe paper were ready and waiting to receive the little Valentines that we hoped for. Many times, a candy sucker was attached to the cards and, if you were really lucky, you’d get a couple of boxes of conversation hearts.
It was a time of innocence.
As the years passed, love became more complicated. First loves, first dates, that all-important first kiss, proms, homecomings and hope chests were the beginning of beautiful futures for some. For others, it meant the start of heart dings and bashes, bumps and bruises.
Love can definitely have a dark side.
Many times, even the most intense loves simply aren’t meant to be. Observation, and a good dose of life, has taught me that, oftentimes, there is no real “bad guy/gal” in loves-gone-wrong. Unless there’s a clear-cut case of abuse, it’s usually a situation where two people come to the life-altering realization that they bring out the very worst in each other.
And let's not forget about unrequited love. As painful as it is, it's something that most of us have been through at one point or another. You adore them. They don’t realize you exist. OUCH!
Love. Wars have been started in the its name. Empires have been brought down at its hands.
Families have been broken because of it. Families have come together over it.
Love can destroy life. Love can bring forth life.
Nobody is immune. The heart has a mind of its own. Even with all its potential for pain, love is still a risk that mankind is willing to take.
I suppose something that powerful deserves its own day, regardless of how it came to be.
Meanwhile, back in “Hooterville”
As for me, my polar-opposite Valentine of 22-years-and-counting and I will probably celebrate quietly and, after all the personal and Galentines festivities are over, my decorations will go into hibernation until next year.
I’ll continue to subject Lanny to rom-coms and before-dawn syndicated “I Love Lucy” episodes, and he’ll humor me with feigned interest while watching.
In my little corner of the world, Chappell Hill, Texas, we sometimes have to wait for chickens and ducks to cross the street in order to get to the post office. My neighborhood is quiet and at night we hear the coyotes, sometimes a little too close for comfort. Cattle graze just across the fence and I can see an endless array of stars dancing across the sky at night. It works for us, even though it may be a little too “Hooterville” for some.
To them I would say, “Frankly, my dear…”
You can learn a lot from Hollywood, sometimes even more from sitcoms, books and music. “Green Acres” can only be achieved by tending to your side of the pasture. According to current divorce rates, it may seem that “jumping the fence” is always an option during a rough patch. But that never solves anything.
At some point in advance of Thursday, Lanny will again ask, “Nuts? Or plain?” And again, I’ll answer, “Plain. Dark chocolate.”
Then he’ll eat the box of milk chocolate, with nuts, he bought for me while I watch a replay of “When Harry Met Sally.”
Until next time, I wish you all the love your heart can hold.
Happy Valentine’s Day,
The Ancient Greeks recognized eight types of love:
Eros: Probably the kind we are most familiar with, encompassing romance and sexual desire
Philia: Friendship. Plato penned the term “platonic” (love without physical attraction) for this type of love
Storge: Familial, parent-to-child; child-to-parent
Ludus: First stage of love, flirtatious, fun, euphoric
Agape: Pure, Spiritual, unconditional (Christ-like)
Philautia: Love of self — This means self-acceptance, and in its proper form has nothing to do with narcissism
Pragma: Unconditional acceptance of another after many years have passed
Favorite movie quotes:
You make me want to be a better man.
As Good As It Gets (1997)
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) to Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt)
I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.
When Harry Met Sally (1989) — Harry (Billy Crystal) to Sally (Meg Ryan)
I love you. You complete me.
Jerry Maguire (1996) — Jerry (Tom Cruise) to Dorothy (Renee Zellweger)
Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
Love Story (1970)
Jennifer (Ali MacGraw) to Oliver (Ryan O’Neal)