Valentine’s Day: A bad time to be single and other lessons learned

Some have said that Valentine’s Day was invented by Hallmark as a way of ensuring that there could be some sort of holiday paraphernalia in drugstores from Thanksgiving straight through to the Fourth of July. Though their statement on America’s relentless commercialism is not untrue, Valentine’s Day has actually existed in one form or another since Roman times.

Most sources agree that St. Valentine, whom the holiday honors, was martyred around Feb. 14 in the late second century A.D., during the reign of Emperor Claudius.  One legend has it that Valentine was a Roman priest who was imprisoned and eventually beheaded. Before he died, he performed a miracle by curing the jailer’s daughter of blindness. According to this story, the tradition of asking someone to be “your valentine” has its roots in the way that Valentine signed his final note to the jailer’s daughter.

Another legend states that Valentine was an Italian bishop who secretly married couples, defying Claudius’ temporary ban. Whether it was simply because his death fell so close to Lupercalia, a pagan love festival (Pope Gelasius changed the date of Valentine’s Day from Feb. 15 to Feb. 14, as a way of eradicating the pagan rituals, but Lupercalia had already its mark), or because Valentine’s life really was devoted to the union of lovers, Valentine has been colloquially known, since St. Valentine’s Day was introduced in 496 A.D., as the patron saint of romantic love.

The central celebration of Lupercalia involved putting the names of all the attending girls in a box and having the boys draw the names out. The couples thus formed were supposedly paired off for the entire year, in correspondence with the belief that birds picked their mates annually on Feb. 14. Christians were originally very opposed to this “lewd ritual” and instead handed out the names of saints on billets on St. Valentine’s Day. In the 14th century, however, celebrations began to return to their roots, with random assignments of Valentine’s Day partners, though this time for just one day.

Today, very little about Valentine’s Day seems random to the students of Williams College. Even without the ritual of random assignment – a ritual whose re-introduction could conceivably be welcomed by a large percentage of the college community – Valentine’s Day is generally considered a day of pressure. While the traditional complainers on Valentine’s Day are the single people (“Why does our society hate single people?” I was asked last weekend when I brought the subject of Valentine’s Day up in conversation – generally a good conversation starter, though perhaps not at this particular moment), people who are in relationships also seem to find it anxiety-producing.

In the film “Kicking and Screaming,” a man finds out that the woman he has just taken out on a first date has her birthday the next day. He groans, saying that so early in a relationship, a birthday is “like a venereal disease”; if he gets her something too big, she will think he is scary and over-eager, but if he gets her something small, she will think that he is cheap. Valentine’s Day provides the same opportunity for romantic error. One junior who said that she and the guy she is maybe-getting-involved-with will probably go out to dinner quickly added: “because we’d do that anyway.”

There seems to be a conflict in many people’s minds between “buying into” Valentine’s Day — either celebrating it or lamenting one’s single state – and dismissing it as sentimental or consumerist. One Williams sophomore told me that he “used to call [Valentine’s Day] Self-Pity Day, but then [he] realized that was a little trite.”

So what are people doing in the town where everything in walking distance but two restaurants is closed by 6 p.m.? English Professors Robert and Ilona Bell are staying home to watch “The Vagina Monologues” on HBO. One freshman, Adam Zamora ’05, is going home to New York to cook dinner for his girlfriend.

Even if you don’t have HBO or a ride to New York, or you don’t want to spend the night with other people, there are things to do. Eliza Segell ’04, Dave Goodman ’03 and the other members of Owen Zero (the band) may be performing on Valentine’s night, valiantly sacrificing their own romantic evenings for the romantic evenings of others (or, as some would say, luckily having an excuse to ignore the holiday). The two stars of A.R.Gurney’s “Love Letters” will be celebrating as people other than themselves.

To those who do not have Valentines, do not despair! Send a carnation to someone anyway; get excited about the half-priced candy sales that start on February 15th; watch “Kicking and Screaming”; make fun of your friends who are born in the middle of November for having cheesy parents; ask someone out on a date. Because, as a wise security guard told me at Goodrich last weekend, “the people who are unhappy now because they don’t have someone will have someone someday. And when you do have someone, you’re happier than you are sad when you don’t.” Persevere, my friends.