This past week, I addressed a handful of brightly colored envelopes, red and pink, to the three small children who occupy such a big place in my heart. I sent them each a valentine, just as I have every year since their births, and, for good measure, added cards for my daughters, their mothers, to the stack. I have two more put aside, both for my husband, that will be placed on his desk Thursday morning, one from me, and, because it’s become a tradition, one from our somewhat neurotic, but lovable dog, who dotes on his master.
Valentines, however entangled with the inevitable commercialism that seems to accompany every holiday, began as a simple expression of love and gratitude, the first attributed to the Charles, Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in 1415 in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt. He reportedly passed his time writing romantic verses for his wife, who was living in France. Approximately sixty of the Duke’s poems remain and are considered the first modern-day valentines. But it took three hundred years for valentines to become popular in this country, and at first, we relied on the import of valentine “writers” from England, booklets with verses and messages that could be copied on decorative paper. By the early 1800s, valentines, simple black and white pictures, were painted and assembled in factories. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the fancy valentines were introduced. Adorned with lace and ribbons, they included affectionate messages and pictures of turtle-doves, lovers’ knots in gold or silver, cupids and bleeding hearts. As I was searching the internet for information on Valentine’s Day, I was surprised to learn that Americans exchange more cards on Valentine’s Day than other time of the year except Christmas.
I’ve been sending Valentine’s cards since I was five years old. I remember how excited I was as our first kindergarten Valentine’s Day preparations began. With the guidance of our teacher, we decorated a large hat box white red and white construction paper hearts, which became our mailbox. We were instructed to bring our Valentine cards, one for each classmate, and place them in the box to be exchanged with one another on February 14, the magical date. There would be a party too, with cookies, cupcakes with candy hearts on top, and Kool-Aid, red and sweet. I was practically dancing with excitement, and on Valentine’s Day morning, I awakened early, well before my parents, and tiptoed into the living room of our upstairs apartment where, laying atop a card table, a package of valentines waited to be addressed.
I went to work, painstakingly printing the name I knew so well in dark blue ink. By the time my mother walked into the room, I’d addressed well over two-thirds of the packet and proudly showed her my handiwork. She gasped. Every single one was the same, all to my very best friend, who happened to have the same as mine: “To Sharon H., From Sharon B.”
My mother managed to salvage a few for distribution to the rest of my classmates, but that morning, as my teacher pulled one card after another from the decorated box and called out each recipient’s name, one person received many more valentines than everyone else. “Why, here’s another card for Sharon H.,” she said, casting a knowing smile in my direction. “I wonder who it’s from?”
Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the U.S., liked sending Valentines too. In 1986, he began a tradition that lasted nearly twenty years. During the month of February, women around the country checked their mail and found a postcard bearing a red heart in the corner with a poem written on it. It was a valentine from Kooser. His project began with the inspiration he had from a friend who sent handmade valentines out each year. He sent his first poem, ”Pocket Poem,” to approximately 50 women in 1986.
If this comes creased and creased again and soiled
as if I’d opened it a thousand times
to see if what I’d written here was right,
it’s all because I looked too long for you
to put in your pocket. Midnight says
the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped
by nervous fingers. What I wanted this
to say was that I want to be so close
that when you find it, it is warm from me.
Over the years, whenever he made a public appearance, Kooser requested that women add their names and addresses to his mailing list. His list grew from 50 in 1986 to 2700 by 2007. By then, he was spending nearly $1,000 that year in postage and printing, which prompted him to ”rein it in,” but the enduring result was Valentines (U. of Nebraska, 2008) a collection of the poems he sent to the lucky women for nearly two decades.
Valentine’s Day, he reminded his NPR audience in an All Things Considered 2008 broadcast, is a great holiday for a poet—and for anyone. “It’s not tied up with anything other than expressions of sentiment,” he said. Incidentally, Kooser remarked that his wife was very patient with his project, since he had a practice of writing “special valentines” for her.
Expressions of sentiment, captured in small verses or lace-trimmed cards, in letters or postcards, are a way to say “I appreciate you” or “I’m thinking of you,” or “I love you.” In a world full of suffering, war and economic downturns, taking the time to express your affection and appreciation for family or friends is a great gift to them. You don’t have to wait for Valentine’s Day. You can send a “valentine” any time. The simple act of pausing to remember those we care about and those who have cared for us in times of struggle, hardship or illness, reminds us of what matters most in our lives: people, friendship, love.
Try writing a valentine this week, a poem, a postcard, even a letter—to someone you appreciate. You can even write one for yourself, saving it for a time when you need a little self-care. Or perhaps you have your own story of a Valentine’s Day you remember from an earlier time. Write your expression of sentiment this Valentine’s Day.