From lashes to love notes

February 14, 2003|By Daniel Meltzer

REINVENTION is everything, nothing is what it seems. Take Valentine's Day, without which Hallmark, Whitman's Samplers, and 1-800-Flowers would have faded, melted and wilted long ago.

The annual cuddle-fest grew to what it is today from a yearly Feb. 15 footrace in ancient Rome, part of something called the Feast of Lupercalia (from the Latin "lupus," ironically enough, for "wolf.") Latter-day Roman-rooted troubadour Francis Albert Sinatra would have ended his days hawking haddock in Hoboken had he ever attempted to work his windpipe witchcraft around "My Funny Lupercalia," which lilts less like a love ballad than a contemporary commercial for something to apply as directed for psoriasis.

The highlight of that ancient festival was the "Lupercalia Loop," a mini-marathon around the Palatine Hill by a pair of hand-picked male sandal-sprinters (Nike was not yet a running shoe, merely a discredited Greek god) whose assigned task was to render fertile infertile women waiting curbside by whipping them with strips of goatskin.

The elevation from lashes to love notes was not quite a lover's quantum leap, however. Fortunately for Mr. Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and their ilk, an early Christian martyr with moxie named Valentine invoked the ire of Emperor Claudius II when he slipped a love note to his jailer's daughter signed, "From your Valentine" (in Latin, of course). Our current custom was born, you might say, of the melding, or marriage, of these two myths, and has been observed in its present form, more or less, since the 14th century.

The day is not without its murderous connotations. I recall a printed invitation to a Feb. 14 party "in commemoration of the Great St. Valentine's Day Massacre."

Little more than a mid-sized multi-mobster murder in a major Midwest metropolis when measured against today's headline blood-lettings, the legendary gangland garage bang-bang in the Chi-town of the Roaring '20s is nowadays perhaps best remembered as the opening sequence in Billy Wilder's hilariously twisted transvestite farce, Some Like it Hot.

Am I the only one whose first image at the mention of V-Day is that movie?

Christmas gets us through the dark of December. The Super Bowl seems diversion enough for January. Spring tiptoes in during March, bringing spring training and the Final Four. February (the longest shortest month of the year) needs something.

Public flogging of young women along Broadway or Sunset Boulevard would never pass, and neither the homely groundhog nor the birthdays of couldn't-tell-a-lie George and Honest Abe would likely inspire anyone to visit her, or his, local lingerie shop or chocolatier.

Much to our relief in this troubled world, Valentine's Day survives, even as women are now active and significant participants in team sports and the military and as man's quest for his inner woman continues. Women can send men flowers. A man might give his sweetheart a set of barbells, a purse-sized can of mace or brass knuckles.

Love still conquers all.

Daniel Meltzer teaches journalism and theater at New York University.

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