Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Valentine’s Day

Valentines Candy Hearts (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Valentines Candy Hearts (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Remember these?

I’m writing on Valentine’s Day and so I thought I would reflect on Valentine’s Day growing up.

Remember Valentine card exchanges and parties in elementary school?

I do. It was a day I approached with lots of fear and trepidation. I was a “Charlie Brown” kind of kid. Not the most popular, athletic, or good looking, and more than a bit nerdy. (Some would say nothing has changed!) My great fear was that when the cards were handed out, I wouldn’t get any–or only a very few. While all the other kids would be showing off all the cards they got, maybe counting them, I’d just shuffle off with my few.

It never really turned out that way. The combination of teacher and parental pressure made it a rule (can’t remember if it was spoken or not) that you gave a Valentine to every kid in your class. And we did. And even though I realized that and that my card count didn’t mean anything, I was still relieved. At least I had a box full of cards that I could take home and show mom. That made the cupcakes and Valentine candies that we had at our class parties so much tastier.

I don’t recall that these parties and exchanges went much beyond third grade. I suspect it would was increasingly hard to get boys to go along with all this. Apart from the food, this was all kind of “yucky” at that stage.

Neither my wife nor I recall this being a big deal for our parents. Maybe a card, maybe an extra kiss and a hug, but not the “big event” deal that it seems to have become these days with reservations at expensive restaurants and all the other trappings. In many cases, they couldn’t afford that many “big events” and the complex of card shops, florists, and restaurants hadn’t convinced them that all this was necessary.

By Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Valentine Baptizing St. Lucilla. By Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s kind of odd that this day is named after St. Valentine. For one thing, it appears there might be several figures with that name, all of whom were faithful priests and martyrs. A common element in all their stories was that they died rather than renouncing their faith. The most common account is that Valentine was the Bishop at Terni. Once, while being held prisoner, he was put to the test and healed a blind girl, resulting in his and other Christians being released. He was eventually reimprisoned under Claudius II who liked him until Valentine sought to convince Claudius to become a Christian. He was martyred February 14, 269.

The earliest reference to Valentine’s Day in connection with romantic love seems to be by Geoffrey Chaucer in Parlement of Foules in 1382 and there are early descriptions of the day as a celebration of romantic love in the French court of Charles VI in the early 1400s. So this connection has been around for a long time, but is still puzzling to me–except if you consider Valentine as a model of sacrificial love.

Actually I wonder if our parents understood more about the real St Valentine (whoever he was) than many on our contemporary scene. Real love for them went beyond the romantic gush that surrounds this day. It was showing up for your family, and showing up at church or mass. That was love, and something they celebrated in quiet but practical ways every day.

What are your memories of Valentine’s Day growing up?

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