17 Feb 2018 16:11 IST

Love is…

…not confined to Valentine’s Day, and certainly not only to couples

When I was growing up in the 1960s, The Statesman published a youth magazine called Junior Statesman. And one of its most popular features was a tiny cartoon series called ‘Love is…’ It featured a simple black and white sketch of a boy and girl or just the boy/girl, with ‘Love is…’ written on the top left, and a smart line at the bottom.

There were some gems and some goofy stuff, such as ‘Love is forever; Love is never having to say you’re sore; Love is a one-time deal; Love is finding time for each other; Love is having stuff that other people don’t; Love is not picking the most expensive dish on the menu’…

The comic strip was created by Kim Casali from New Zealand, and grew out of love notes that she drew for her boyfriend, Roberto. Both Roberto and Kim have passed on, but ‘Love is…’ endures to this day.

Of course, the most famous love declaration comes from the 1970 film, Love Story, starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, in which the latter character says, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The film was based on a book by Erich Segal.

Changing sentiments

Kim’s cartoon, however, said ‘Love is… being able to say you’re sorry’; and it went on to become a hugely popular souvenir. According to Wikipedia, at the height of their popularity, the cartoons earned Kim Casali about £4-5 million annually (this was the 1970s, remember, nearly 50 years ago).

The sentiment expressed in the line from Love Story is clearly cheesy and has often been criticised. In a 1972 film, What’s Up, Doc?, the heroine, played by Barbra Streisand, flutters her lashes and declares: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, to which the hero, played by Ryan O’Neal (yes, the same one) responds: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

On balance, I’d go with Kim Casali, even while toning down the dumbness quotient: after all, as teenagers, we thought that was the most romantic thing anyone could say to their beloved, and felt quite hurt by the What’s Up, Doc? meme. Then, not anymore!

A day of love

The celebration of Valentine’s Day, though, seems out of proportion with life as we see it and the world we live in. Chocolates and roses and cards and gifts and dinner and dancing… Surely, you don’t need a designated day to ply all this on the object of your affection?

It’s reasonable to assume that in an ideal world, teenagers, youth and others with hormones running wild thanks to testosterone, oestrogen, adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, would want to kiss and coddle and celebrate every day as Valentine’s Day.

Then, when the love drive begins to loose fizz as the years pile on, for various reasons, it would probably be exhausting to keep up with the demands of February 14, going by all that the media says and shows and suggests.

But then, who wants to be a killjoy, so to each their own. However, when RJ after RJ talks about what the ‘poor’ singletons will do on February 14, then it begins to grate. The suggestion that it’s sad if you’re single, especially on Valentine’s Day, proposes that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t have a romantic partner. Now, that’s objectionable. Incidentally, it appears singletons can come together for Singles Awareness Day (SAD) to celebrate or wallow in their ‘ownsome lonesome’ status!

Oh, the pressures!

Several years ago, I happened to be at a school in Southern Sweden on Valentine’s Day. There were red hearts everywhere: stuck on doors and walls, hanging from windows, balloons, cards, the works. Girls as young as nine and 10 were all made up and walking about self-consciously, some holding hands with their Valentines, others giggling in groups, or watching couples with desperate looks in their eyes.

The boys looked positively uncomfortable despite the palpable show of bravado. Some of the teachers I spoke with seemed really troubled. “It isn’t even our tradition or custom to celebrate Valentine’s Day,” one of them said. Others spoke of the tremendous pressure it put on kids to be romantically linked with someone. “They’re little kids, look at what’s happening to them,” another teacher said, sounding troubled. They blamed the cards and gifts industry primarily for the spread of this practice.

What’s the origin?

There are many theories regarding the origin of the love celebration. One is a Roman spring festival called Lupercalia held in February. As part of the celebration, people conducted fertility rites and paired off couples. Another story has it that at one time, Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, and a priest called St Valentine of Terni helped them defy this ban and secretly married couples so that the men wouldn’t have to go to war. Now this is a dramatic, even romantic, explanation but a far cry from the soppiness associated with February 14 these days.

Interestingly, it seems the Italian town of Verona, the setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, receives about a thousand cards addressed to Juliet every Valentine’s Day! What happens to these letters? Well, there’s a Juliet Club in Verona that attends to them. It seems that in the 1930s, a person called Ettore Solimani was the guardian of Juliet’s Tomb in Verona. He found people leaving letters at this site and, upon reading some of them, felt moved to respond.

Most wrote about their own love troubles, and that’s how the practice of responding to the letters addressed to Juliet began. There’s a team of secretaries that does this, and the letters are kept in The Juliet Club Archive. So the next time you visit Verona, be sure to pop in there and read some. And if you haven’t already seen this film, do take a look at Letters to Juliet.

The funny thing is that it’s teachers who receive the most number of Valentine’s Day cards, not romantic partners. Then come ‘children, mothers, wives’ and only then ‘sweethearts and pets’. That’s priority for you.

So, what happens on Teacher’s Day?