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For all you guys out there, a friendly reminder from a guy who usually needs one: Thursday is Valentine’s Day. You know what you have to do.

For certain, she does.

If you haven’t quite got a clue, go out and patronize your local rose monger, chocolatier and restaurateur to reserve a table with champagne, lobster and chateaubriand for two. Before the night is over I guarantee you’ll discover she is a vegan teetotaler, dieting and allergic to flowers.

Ain’t love grand?

Of all the Hallmark holiday the calendar is cursed with, this is the granddaddy (grandmamma?) of them all. St. Valentine’s Day got its start with a proclamation from Pope Gelasius I way back in 496. Feb. 14 was declared the feast day of St. Valentine in honor of a Roman bishop who ended up clubbed, stoned and finally beheaded after seriously annoying the emperor. Before he left this mortal coil as a martyr, by tradition he sent off a final farewell note to a young lady he had miraculously cured of blindness, signing it, “Your Valentine.”

Somehow his fate seems an appropriate origin for this particular occasion, as millions and millions of men who’ve had their heads bitten off for a romantic faux pas on the annual day of whine and roses will attest.

And isn’t it fitting that the guy who started it all lived as a celibate?

Of course, after more than 1,500 years the commercial world has a real heartfelt interest in keeping Cupid’s arrows a’flying. When it comes to this mid-winter festival of commercialized amoré we start ‘em young. Well before kids have any real notion that birds and bees have any significance beyond feathers, poop, honey and stings they’ve learned to link February with all manner of cardiac-themed cartoonery and a sense that something important might be going on.

Now, back in 1961, Mrs. Rolfing didn’t get into the hagiography of the holiday. Long before the advent of family life curriculum, she certainly wasn’t intending to instruct or encourage her 9-year-old charges in the ways of carnal pulchritude. But the pervasiveness of the hearts and flowers holiday was sufficient to mark it — along with Christmas and Halloween — with an official classroom celebration.

In preparation, each of us was required to bring a shoe box from home. As a classroom art project, carefully and academically evaluated and assessed, we were required to cut a slot in the lid, wrap it in entirety with red, white and pink construction paper, then tastefully decorate with cut out paper hearts in contrasting color and identify it with our name on the lid.

For the next week or so, class members would go from box to box, semi-surreptitiously slipping Valentine cards into their classmates’ growing collection.

Those cards were all pretty similar, mostly bought in ready-made school packs from the local Ben Franklin store. Each of us would be provided with a class list, so nobody would be forgotten, and after my best procrastinative efforts were exhausted, Mom would sit me at the dining room table, stacks of blank cards and envelopes in front of me, class roster to one side, and keep careful watch as I dutifully selected, signed and slipped card after card into flimsy white envelopes sealed with a slurp of spit across the sour-tasting glue.

Those cards created certain affectional ambiguities. Each carried a relatively innocuous sentiment — clearly cribbed from the chalky Valentine candies some kids enclosed in the cards destined for “special” people. But a kid had to be careful. Quite honestly, I did not want Gary Songer to “Be Mine,” nor did I, in any way, shape or form, want to be “his.”

When the big day came, the last class hour was devoted to red Kool-Aid, brownies and candy hearts — nobody worried about sending kids home with a sugar high in 1961. We packed up our cards in the big manila envelopes our teacher handed out, and the raggedy, tattered boxes pretty much filled the rolling trash barrel wheeled up from the janitor’s room.

Tomorrow it would be back to phonics and long division ... and who didn’t love that?

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Jerome Christenson is a former reporter, columnist and editor at the Winona Daily News.


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