Buon San Valentino!
For those love birds out there, don’t worry. This is not going to be an anti-consumerist rant on why Valentine’s Day is a vapid holiday that propels our already heightened commercialism. I am not going to write about the nauseating feeling I get when I see red and white Christmas decorations immediately replaced by other red and white decorations. I could devote some serious time to the matter, but I will leave that to the countless other advocates of anti-valentinism (it is a word, look it up). Instead, I would like to take a moment and reflect on Valentine’s Day in Italy.From the country that inspired Romeo and Juliet and is known for conjuring up romantic images of Tuscan sunsets, vineyards, and couples embraced in gondolas gliding down the canals of Venice, you may find it surprising that Valentine’s Day in Italy is handled rather mildly. Italians treat this sweetheart’s holiday with a light-hearted playfulness and, in some cases, a goofy naughtiness. This may also come as a surprise if you stop to consider the origins of the day itself. Valentine’s Day is named after one or more early Christian saints – either Saint Valentine of Rome or Valentine of Terni. Both saints were martyred and subsequently buried in Rome. Valentines’s Day has been celebrated since 496 A.D. when it was established by Pope Gelasius I.
Despite the fact that Valentine’s Day was established in Italy and that many of the quintessential romantic ideals are Italian-based, the holiday today (thankfully) does not seem to be a very big deal. The entire experience is not overpowering, pressure-filled, or as in your face as it tends to be in other (I’m not naming names) countries. I believe that this is due in large part to the distinct lack of greeting cards and larger card, candy, and flower-filled stores. Thefew shops that do cater to Valentine’s Day gift-giving are bakeries, chocolate shops, and lingerie stores. Jewelry stores do not even seem to be cashing in on the holiday. In general, shops in Italy are much smaller in size and thus do not overpower you like they can in other (again, I am not naming names) countries. Just close your eyes and think of what CVS or any jewelry store in your local mall must look like right now. All things considered, I really believe that the single most contributing factor to the lighter side of Valentine’s Day in Italy involves greeting cards or the lack thereof. According to the United States Greeting Card Association, it is estimated that 190 million valentines are sent every year. It is 1 billion if you include the valentine exchange of cards made in schools. Even as we move further away from pens and paper and rely more and more heavily on our computers and phones to communicate, valentines still remain a top priority to people around the world. An estimated 15 million e-valentines were sent in 2010! I just spent the entire week leading up to Valentine’s Day in Italy and never saw a single Valentine’s Day greeting card. I also never saw a single Valentine-themed commercial, I never overheard single Italian women opining the holiday, and I never heard any couple discussing their Valentine’s Day plans. Here is what I did see…a few red boxes of chocolate, a street performer dressed up as Cupid, and some silly lingerie. The street performer (decked out with his wings and bow and arrow) seemed to be drawing the attention of tourists much more than Italians and I had an easier time finding naughty men’s underwear than I did sexy lingerie. My personal favorites include a smiling animated cell phone and a mini mailbox for love notes printed on the crotch area of some tighty whities. After my cursory observations this week, I realized that it may not be concluded that Italians are less romantic because of their lukewarm treatment of Valentine’s Day. By celebrating and demonstrating love and affection in other, less obvious and commercial ways, they may very well be more romantic.