On Valentine’s Day and Awkwardness

Of all the cultural holidays that exist in the world today, Valentine’s Day is by far the most supremely awkward. A casual ‘what are you up to this week?often results in something like ‘Well it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow and I’m forever alone so I’ll probably just be at home eating chips.’ This kind of response, which is one I received last year, often leaves one feeling confused, unsure about what kind of sentiment Valentine’s Day is supposed to elicit, and sorry for asking anything in the first place.

Between excessive googly eyed oversharing and excessive eye-rolling scorn, it can be difficult to determine what is or should be the day’s official public sentiment. For Valentine’s Day provides us with special licence to air more than we might otherwise be permitted in the way of mawkish details or loud cynical disgust at the state of human romantic affairs. From one extreme to the other, gut-curdling sentimentality and exhausting misanthropy are only to be expected on Valentine’s Day.

However, in the aim of identifying a more moderate position between the two, I am endeavouring today to find a different way of looking at Valentine’s Day, by examining some of the historical insights that can be gleaned from that strangely awkward date in the calendar – the 14th of February.

The origin of Valentine’s Day

Seeing animals grooming each other is often a cause for optimism, for it leaves one with a comforting sense that whatever bad may be happening in the world, the sweetness and honesty of animals endures.

However, when one is casually strolling with friends, and in the middle of a brilliant anecdote you have been saving up two of them unexpectedly start patting and grooming one another, it is often difficult not to find oneself in a position of slight awkwardness or discomfort. In extreme cases, if the situation is particularly delicate, a large tumbleweed may even roll by, leaving you additionally confused and unsure of what to do.

tumbleweed tumbleweeds

So, in order to deal with those who are prone to over-sharing, here I would like to make a suggestion that may be used to divert any conversation veering too close to unnecessary details, but one from which it would be rude to suddenly switch to a non–Valentine’s Day theme. Rather than asking ‘What are you guys up today?’ – which at first glance appears neutral but often gets one into all kinds of awkward silences – ask something like ‘Have you heard of the imprisonment of Saint Valentine?’

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AD 270 Today in Rome, Bishop Valentine of Interamna (now Terni in Umbria) was stoned to death and then beheaded on the orders of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus

  • Carrick and Marsh, A Leap Year of Great Stories from History for Every Day of the Year (UK: Icon Books Ltd, 2007), p. 72.

Due to the existence of more than one Saint Valentine, uncertainty remains about which Saint actually lends his name to Valentine’s Day. A persistent legend has it, however, that the Saint who is commemorated on the 14th February was a Roman priest who was imprisoned by the Emperor Claudius for illegally marrying couples against his wishes. In the interests of building himself a highly focused army consisting of unattached and undistracted young men, Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage not long before, and it is said that during his imprisonment, Bishop Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailer. On the day of his execution – the 14th February – he left her a note signed ‘Your Valentine’, spawning a tradition that has survived into the modern world.

So, when confronted with the sometimes embarrassingly awkward prospect of trying to decide how to respond to long and detailed reports of what was ordered for Valentine’s Day dinner, perhaps mention the legend of Saint Valentine, with an emphasis on its tragic ending. This may cause your companions to pause for a moment in serious reflection at how even the most romantic ideals are closely tied to tragedy and failure – that life is after all, an extremely strange and fragile business – or it may cause them to politely excuse themselves from your company. In either instance, you will find yourself saved from a conversation that may have ended in discomfort or nausea.

However, if diverting the conversation doesn’t work, and you find yourself unable to brighten the day with public declarations of how fascinating history is, consider doing something creative on Valentine’s Day, like building yourself a model trebuchet. Or, if you are feeling particularly bewildered at the extremes of emotion that will emerge this 14th February, try building a full-sized one, remembering that in the Middle Ages (and really throughout most of human history), love was rarely the guiding principle for marriage. Most marriages were arranged according to political and economic benefit, meaning that the idea of marrying for love is, historically, a very recent one. In this sense, you are among the lucky few – for I am presuming and hoping that pressures like having a larger empire are not weighing down the state of your love life as they might have during the 15th century.

trebuchet meme

On cynicism

This brings me now to an important acknowledgement I feel I must make. The tone of this entry so far might have made it seem as though I am suggesting that cynicism is the best response to the awkwardness that is often experienced on Valentine’s Day.

While cynicism sometimes has its place – for humour and irony – there can be something as equally exhausting in an excess of cynicism on Valentine’s Day as there is in an excess of sentimentality. For years now my sister has been giving ‘Happy Invented Love Day’ cards to her partner, and I was recently impressed to learn that a friend of mine last year gave what I believe was a vomit-themed card to her boyfriend of four years. This kind of witty cynicism is entertaining, but more persistent cynicism can also create awkwardness and increase one’s suspicion that awkwardness – not romance – should be sanctioned as the official public sentiment of Valentine’s Day.

The Wedding Singer: from one extreme to the other, Valentine’s Day can leave one feeling unsure whether love or scorn should be the official public sentiment

It may seem, therefore, as though I am contradicting myself when I write now that I feel it necessary to defend cynicism to some extent. But I would like to suppose that it is not the ideas of love and happiness themselves that leave many grumbling loudly at this time of year, but a perception that the abduction of Valentine’s Day by the commercial world has turned it into a frustrating day in which saccharine hearts and the billion-dollar national budget for roses brings it upsettlingly close to a ritualistic and self-congratulatory paradox. If the legends are to be believed, Bishop Valentine committed what was a powerful gesture of self-sacrifice by marrying young couples against the wishes of a violent and powerful Emperor. Cynicism is therefore unsurprising when a sentiment originating from such a tale is reduced into unpleasant, stereotypical and sometimes blatantly offensive representations of love and romance:

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Click on images for source

valentines day jewellery ad

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When ideals as important as love and kindness are reduced into distasteful advertising campaigns, cynicism about Valentine’s Day is an understandable response. Click on image for source

 

However, in a beautiful letter written by John Steinbeck, one is helpfully reminded of the dangers of an overindulgence in cynicism and eye rolling at this time of year, as well as the excessive amount of self-congratulation that is a common by-product of modern, commercialised Valentine’s Days. Upon learning that his teenage son had fallen in love, Steinbeck offered the following advice:

First – if you are in love – that’s a good thing – that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second – There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable.

Even with cynicism, the ideal of love remains a beautiful one, so it can be helpful to remember, when confronted with misanthropic grumbling, that many people’s scorn and cynicism are a direct result of the disparity between the two types of love that Steinbeck highlights here: one that is used for self-congratulation and self-importance – such as we see in the adverts above – and one that functions as a window through which to appreciate the value of someone other than oneself – such as we see in the tale of Saint Valentine.

On Folklore, and how it can help ease the awkwardness of the middle ground

Now, if you will allow me to extend this piece to much longer than I had intended it to be, I feel compelled to mention a favourite folkloric figure of mine. In keeping with a discussion of how best to combat cynicism, it seems to me that there’s an odd parallel between Steinbeck’s reminder not to allow cynicism to make love small or light, and that terrifying German folkloric figure of the Krampus.

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The Krampus dances as he makes himself lunch

While Hallmark is busy suggesting that love is a one-sided experience full of roses and chocolate – or at least that it should be on Valentine’s Day – the Krampus again, in his ugly wisdom, reminds us of a more realistic approach.

However unfriendly and terrifying he might appear, the Krampus offers us a far more realistic image of romantic experiences as at times deeply troubling and unsettling affairs. He provides none of the biased, saccharine overdose one can expect from greeting card companies, but rather, in his characteristically mean fashion, the Krampus urges us to exercise more caution in pursuing our romantic ideals, for not all relationships will or can be as happy as we like to think they can be on Valentine’s Day. He needn’t be the friend of only the cynic, but can serve as a reminder for all of us that no romantic relationship can always be roses, and that battling demons is sometimes necessary.

 

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On the groaning that often comes with Christmas

The other day at work – as is the polite but often tiresome custom when working in retail – I found myself making small talk. What are you doing for Christmas this year? I asked the man who unpacks boxes and marks off stock at the back.

…Christmas?

Boring!

Just the same thing as last year!

His reply was exasperated, with the exclamation marks included, and I found myself unsure whether to feel relieved or disheartened that his response reflected the level of disinterest that I also found myself reaching. What to make of this thing called Christmas?

The question was again brought to my attention when I was on the way to the supermarket a few days later, and I found myself confronted unhappily with this:

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Tinsel tree: a sad sight for the soul when one is told to feel festive

I’m not trying to be nasty, it is nice that some effort was made, but I couldn’t help but feel an unpleasant pang of sadness at such a failed attempt at festivity. If this tree were a person it would have been on the stocks.

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Be merry. It’s Christmas. (Click on image for source)

For, however well-meaning they may be, modern attempts to encourage a festive atmosphere at this time of year often fail – partly because traditionally Christmas trees are not supposed to look as though they have been abandoned on a busy street by someone who had something nicer to put in their living room, and partly because nobody really likes to be told to be cheerful on cue.

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Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Illustration by John Leech, 1843. Click for source

I suspect that, like Scrooge (who is not entirely bad after all), something of my colleagues’ frustration with Christmas was to do with the dashed expectations that are realised when Christmas turns from a childhood fancy in which everybody gets to pat a reindeer and eat cake, into yet another inconvenient chore in a busy schedule. The difference between an exciting holiday remembered from the Christmases of our childhood, and the frantic reality of the last month of the year is what leads many adults to a Scrooge-like cynicism when it comes to the Christmas cheer advertised so tediously in all those Muzak carols.

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If only: Thomas Kinkade’s ‘Spirit of Christmas’ reminds us of our childhood expectations when it comes to Christmas time

Indeed, it is often said that democracy is a euphemism for capitalism, and it is during holidays like Christmas that it can be difficult not to suspect the truth in this statement. ‘I have to do my Christmas shopping’, for many, becomes a euphemism for ‘I have to go and die now in this corner’. Others express a sense of shocked disbelief – even outrage – that the year has betrayed them so treacherously by arriving at Christmas this rapidly, without having allowed any opportunity to prepare. Just yesterday, I saw a giant billboard hovering over the Monash Freeway encouraging those who have not yet finished their Christmas shopping to consider online shopping, courtesy of Australia Post, who tell us that they ‘love delivering’, but who would also like to increase business. What we see in happy snow globes can, at times, seem a whole world away, for unfortunately in the modern world, when something becomes commercialised the ideas behind it can also become lost, and the thing that was most interesting in the first place is quietly pushed out of the way.

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Artwork by Quint Buccholz: the elderly gentleman has found a secret entrance into the snow globe paradise we see in Christmas books. He catches the gentle snow

So, unwilling to adopt the level of harsh disapproval possessed by Ebenezer Scrooge – who pronounces at the beginning of A Christmas Carol that ‘every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart’ –  this year I am attempting to reconsider Christmas from a few different perspectives. Historically, Christmas has been full of weird and wonderful activities, phenomena, superstitions and games: in order to reinvigorate the next few days of daunting festivity, I have listed three of the most interesting below, to keep in mind when decorating even the most plastic of Christmas trees.

1. The origins of Christmas: the Saturnalia

Although there remains some doubt as to when Christmas was first celebrated on 25 December, there is agreement among scholars that elements of Christmas as we understand it today are descended from the Saturnalia, a Roman festival that honoured Saturn – the agricultural deity responsible for bountiful crops and sunny fields.
saturn god

The Church selected 25 December because, not knowing Jesus’ actual birthday, it was canny enough to choose a time when pagans had traditionally celebrated the winter solstice.

In pagan Rome this meant the Saturnalia, a seven-day holiday starting on 17 December when all business was suspended, executions postponed and gifts exchanged. During this natalis solis invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun) slaves were given temporary freedom and were served by their masters.1

The Saturnalia is said to have been a period of unrestrained festivity, something very different to the experience of Christmas we find here, in this painfully accurate rendition of a modern Christmas by those masters of merriment, The Wombats.

During the Saturnalia, roles were reversed and social norms were overturned for a temporary period of merrymaking and revelry, in which one could experience the world through the eyes of another. Tom Hodgkinson writes about this in his book Brave Old World:

In Saturnalia, Lucian writes about the custom at parties of electing one of the assembled company temporary ‘king’. This king gives silly orders, ‘telling one man to shout out something disgraceful about himself, another to dance naked, pick up the flute girl and carry her three times around the room. In this sense, wearing antler horns, falling over and photocopying your naked behind at the office party is very much in the true spirit of Christmas, and the Malvolios who would sneer at such vulgar activities during the season are missing the point.2

The Saturnalia is fascinating precisely because I cannot decide whether it would have been turmoil or some kind of wonderful carnival. I myself am more of the sit-down-and-read persuasion, however, even I can see the appeal of a temporary suspension of the norm – a time in which slaves could insult their masters and be free of punishment, and in which society’s underdogs were freed from the restrictive social system they were normally obliged to follow. The closest thing that comes to mind when considering the frenzy of the Saturnalia is the modern experience of Christmas shopping. Shopping, however, leaves many feeling frustrated and hassled, and very far from liberated. Therefore, to liven up this Christmas, consider creating your own version of the Saturnalia, perhaps with a king of fools or a hired jester, or someone assigned to make merry trouble and divert any mention at the table of politics or the weather into a jest about the cat.

If, however, the Saturnalia is too chaotic, consider this tale about the origins of a popular Christmas ritual for another lesson in how to deal with the frustration that comes with Christmas preparations:

Early Germanic tribes [celebrated] the winter solstice by butchering slaves and male animals and hanging them (or parts of them) on the branches of trees, thus anticipating the Christmas tree ornaments of today. At the beginning of the 18th century, St Boniface (actually an Englishman named Winfrid) went to Germany to covert the pagan tribes there. According to legend, one day he came upon a group about to slaughter a child to adorn an oak tree in honour of the god Donner. Enraged, he chopped it down (or, alternatively, knocked it down with a single punch), only to have a pine tree spring from its roots, which he took to be a sign from God. Along with Christianising the Germans, St Boniface urged them to continue the ritual embellishment of trees at Christmas, but with fruit and nuts rather than body parts and to use cone-shaped pine trees because their triangular shape represented the Trinity.3

st boniface tree

st boniface tree 2

Because many modern Christmas celebrations can feel vapid, meaningless and over-commercialised, and because trees made of tinsel can be terribly depressing things for the soul, we should be eager to remember St Boniface, who, calm and unruffled, offers a valuable lesson about how to manage our frustration at Christmas: when one is feeling irritated by the alienating nature of the modern Christmas, and perhaps wants to smash something down in a rage, follow the lead of St Boniface and direct your anger at something that actually needs smashing. Perhaps a branch that has been blocking your driveway for some time, or perhaps that old broken chair that you keep tripping over at the front door. Productive smashing may liven up Christmas when it is done with the elegance of a saint.

2. Christmas superstitions

Another way in which we might resurrect some of the appeal that has evaporated from modern Christmas celebrations is to re-enact some ancient superstitions – such as this one, popular from the 17th to the 19th century. I believe this one would be the most richly re-enacted in the interior of a busy shopping centre, right in the middle of peak Christmas shopping time. You may, of course, have to substitute a pear tree for a plastic one (they seem to grow best in shopping centres), or if you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can bring your own pear tree with you.

Walk backward to a pear tree and around it three times on Christmas Eve to see the spirit or image of a future husband.4

If anyone should ask what you are doing, inform them simply that you are nobly re-injecting some life into Christmas, and then perhaps give their shopping bag a dirty look. After all, the bursting shopping bag and the suffocating shopping centre come Christmas time are painful reminders of how even festivities with the most interesting origins can become unpleasant when appropriated too deeply into the commercial world. If this, however, is too difficult, perhaps leave a colander on your doorstep in memory of this Christmas superstition, designed to combat the capricious Kallikantzaroi from ruining Christmas and, well, destroying the world:

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Re-enacting this one comes with the added bonus of being able to tell people that you are not being weird, with your colander-vigil, you are actually, saving the world and that, if they really believe in the Christmas spirit they should abandon the overheated family discussion inside and join you on the doorstep.

3. It’s beginning to look a lot like Krampus…

The final Christmas mythology I would like to mention is Die Krampus. If what I have mentioned so far seems all a bit too light hearted, and you have heard one too many jingle bells and seen one too many adverts for the holiday spirit which you are just not feeling, then perhaps you should consider doing some research into this folkloric figure. It may not make you merry, but it may reinvigorate your perception of Christmas once again, as something that is actually worth considering. If you’ve just got no Christmas spirit in your bones, then the Krampus is for you.

The Krampus originates from the Alpine counties, most notably Austria, where he is said to accompany St. Nicholas as he rewards good children with presents, and leaves naughty children to be punished by the Krampus. Or, if they have been really terrible, St. Nicholas leaves them to be carried off in a basket to be eaten by the Krampus, which apparently elicits only a mild amount of interest from siblings and other nearby members of the family;

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Krampuskarten: cards on which images of the Krampus were advertised to naughty children in order to convince them to behave. I suspect they worked well
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The Krampus: a truly terrifying figure
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Enough to ruin anybody’s Christmas

There is some debate as to whether the Krampus predates Christianity and has his origins in pagan mythologies, for he does bear some resemblance to a faun. Albeit one gone horribly, irretrievably, feral. I personally believe that he crawled up from a cold dark crack, deep within the subterranean bowels of the earth when he heard that nobody had invited him to decorate the tree. He since appears to have remained ever-bitter, and harboured a hatred of festivity at this time of the year.There is however, one thing for which I must thank the Krampus, for there is something very interesting to be learnt from his terrifying figure.

When one is confronted with the images that appear after even the most cursory Google image search for ‘the krampus’, one finds oneself feeling inadvertently protective of Christmas, and of small children hanging baubles off trees and making merry in the snow. Even when the carols in the street have all become too much and one wants to disappear into the house and never hear any mention of Christmas again, one need only look to the Krampus to see that there is actually something worth valuing at this time of year. From here one realises that some attachment to Christmas from childhood must remain, even if it has nearly been destroyed by the hustle and bustle and general stress that comes with its preparation in the 21st century. When one considers the savage delight with which the Krampus ruins Christmas, even the smallest spark of outrage can be cultivated into a new appreciation of the festive season, and a willingness to be appreciative about something come the 25th December. Whether it is the uncomfortable family dinner or merely the opportunity to learn about how this occasion is celebrated in different parts of the world, there is definitely a lot of room for enthusiasm at Christmas. Oddly, perhaps the Krampus has the most to teach us about Christmas, even as he tries to destroy it by hogging all the fruit and stealing all the children.

So with that in mind, Merry Christmas to those reading, and may you stay safe from the Krampus and his scorn this season!

Further resources for enlivening Christmas: 

Heston Blumenthal’s Perfect Christmas – Perhaps try one of his recipes this year? Even if disaster ensues, it is sure to be a memorable event.

Tales From the Green Valley Episode 4 – see what Christmas was like in the 17th century when this group of archaeologists and historians recreate it according to primary sources from the time.

References: 

1 Carrick and Marsh, A Leap Year of Great Stories from History for every day of the Year (UK: Icon Books Ltd, 2007), pp. 577-578.

2 Hodgkinson, Brave Old World (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 249.

3 Carrick and Marsh, A Leap Year of Great Stories from History for every day of the Year (UK: Icon Books Ltd, 2007), pp. 577-578.

4 Murrell, Superstitions (London: Reader’s Digest, 2008) p. 56.