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February, the cruellest month

By G.D. Maxwell Roses are red, Gardenias are too sweet, Valentine’s Day deserves More than a repeat. And so the day of International Performance Anxiety looms large before us.

By G.D. Maxwell

Roses are red,

Gardenias are too sweet,

Valentine’s Day deserves

More than a repeat.

And so the day of International Performance Anxiety looms large before us. Every man who can peer into his heart of hearts without having his vision filtered through a gauze of self-delusion – and many a woman to boot – longs simultaneously for inspiration and a fast-forward button, a painless segue to Sunday, a safe trip through the minefield of love.

Alas, the inevitable remains inevitable and forever February will remain the cruellest month. Love Hurts, as Don and Phil Everly sang in their delayed-pubescent harmony more years ago than most who read this can remember. Never more so than on February 13 th as the hours count down and you walk the streets – or pedestrian villages if you’re so lucky – of your town, a growing cloud of disillusion building into thunderheads over your chowderhead as you rack what’s left of your brain for a storm of a different nature.

What to do about Valentine’s Day?

Roses are red,

And ever so handy,

Diamonds are bloody,

But less fattening than candy.

Like so many ills in a world beginning to look like one gigantic Emergency Room, the ills of Valentine’s Day can be laid at the feet of organized religion. It was not always thus.

When Latin was the language of Rome instead of the language that bore those other languages tagged romance , there was no Valentine’s Day, just a Valentine. For more centuries than those of us with no grasp of history, let alone geological time, can imagine, the Romans celebrated and feasted Lupercus. Not a major deity, Lupercus was your basically fun-loving, lower-case god and his celebration was yet another celebration of fertility, an ancient Roman word for lust.

Not fully grasping the notion that February was supposed to be the cruellest month – this period of history having preceded the Julian let alone the Gregorian calendar – those rascally ancient Romans partied like there was no tomorrow, which for many of them there probably wasn’t. Believing gods, like people, needed to celebrate togetherness, they more or less associated Lupercus with Faunus, the god of nature and patron of agriculture, sort of a Roman version of Pan without the annoying flute or Greek accent.

So if you were an ancient Roman and you decided to celebrate the god of lust and the god of nature during the middle of winter, what would you do? Silly question. You’d hold a lottery and let stout-hearted Roman lads draw the names of comely, young Roman girls and pair the two up as sexual companions for the upcoming year. I know that’s what I would have done.

Roses are red,

Stoners like to toke,

The Church intervened

And the rest is a cruel joke.

Of course, the whole virgin lottery proved to be just a cruel joke. It didn’t start out that way. It was, in many respects, what you might call a training period for young men to get into the swing of ancient Roman life. But then things got messy. Rome decided it really wanted to become an Empire and the rest is pretty much a bloody history of war and conquest.

Since you can’t seriously engage in war and conquest with an army full of lollygagging, fornicating idolaters, and since spending a year with a comely virgin led inevitably to a strong desire for continued partnership and hence, to marriage, mistresses and general fooling around, there was what ancient social scientists termed a disconnect.

Enter Claudius. It was Claudius the Sequel – not to be confused with Claudius I, father of the endless mini-series – who finally decided Roman soldiers would be more soldierly if they were unencumbered by comely wives waiting back home for them to, well, to be done with conquest and get on with conquest.

So he banned marriage. The solution was so simple and sweeping it became the historical model for the way Republicans try to deal with all implacable problems, kind of like Nancy Reagan’s ill-fated solution to the problem of homelessness – "Just get a house!"

There was just one problem. St. Valentine. Well, he wasn’t a saint back then but he was a busybody who believed in wedded bliss. So Valentine would clandestinely marry All the Young Dudes who came to him and sang a verse of the song.

Needless to say, Claudius found out about it and had a bird. Being a reasonable kind of pagan, he tried to convert Valentine to paganism. It was a generous offer to get with the program but Valentine answered to a Higher Power and it failed.

So during the two years Claudius II was the ruler of Rome, he waged war, tossed Valentine’s butt in prison, got him stoned and then beheaded him. Shortly thereafter, Claudius caught the Plague and died.

But before he died – Valentine, not Claudius, keep up – he fell in love with his jailer’s blind daughter. Valentine’s love for her and his abiding faith in the Revolutionary God, not to mention some hands-on ministrations, miraculously cured her blindness. I don’t know what his other two miracles were but before he got stoned and beheaded, Valentine slipped a farewell note to her, assuming now that she could see she could also miraculously read.

It allegedly said, "From your Valentine."

Roses are red,

Popes can get testy,

This is the part

Where the story gets messy.

A couple of hundred years later, Gelasius, who succeeded Pope Felix the Cat, found himself in a lull between battles with the upstarts in Constantinople who just didn’t get the whole Church is mightier than Crown thing. Casting around for something to do, he decided to ruin another perfectly good pagan holiday by co-opting it to Christianity.

So with a few magic words – undoubtedly the Latin equivalent of Presto Chango – he converted the Lottery of Lupercus into St. Valentine’s Day. Instead of drawing for virgins, both men and women drew names of saints. The idea was to spend the year emulating the ways of the saints. Needless to say, the guys felt shafted. But the Church persevered and the rest is history. More or less.

And so, come Friday, those of us who still haven’t come up with a Really Romantic Idea to celebrate the centre of our adoration will undoubtedly fall back on flowers, candy, jewels and a cheesy dinner in a restaurant filled with others of limited imagination.

As for me, well, I think I’ve still got a trick or two up my sleeve.

Roses are red,

The terrorist alert is Orange….

Rhyme that one, Cupid.