Valentine’s Day 2024. I’m intrigued that Ash Wednesday also falls on February 14th this year. Romance sharing the day with the kickoff for 40 days of sacrifice? Coincidence, or does the juxtaposition hold deeper meaning?
What on earth are you talking about?
I’m talking about the Valentine’s Day party in Mrs. Campbell’s fifth grade class, Lily, although that was in 1970 when Ash Wednesday fell on February 11th.
Valentine’s Day was first called Lupercalia (derived from the Latin word lupus, meaning wolf). It originated at least as early as the 6th century BCE and was a pagan holiday that celebrated fertility.
Wolves, fertility- -what could possibly go wrong?
There were no wolves in Mrs. Campbell’s fifth grade, just the usual couple dozen kids comprised of roughly equal numbers of girls and boys. The only thing that happened within those four walls regarding fertility was the screening for girls only of a movie about getting your period.
It’s waiting for you next school year, 9. You’ll be okay- -the movie is vague and will leave leave you largely clueless about the intended subject matter. Our takeaway: “growing up” has mostly to do with shopping for more stylish dresses.
But I digress.
Tell me something I don’t know.
Returning to the Valentine’s Day party, Mrs. Campbell had trusted the boys with hosting the Halloween party earlier in the school year. They (with major assistance from their moms) brought Halloween-themed cookies and cupcakes and even a layer cake. The boy whose mom sent the layer cake was someone I had a crush on first through fourth grades. He told the class his mom had to use a toothpick to hold part of the cake together. She’d said whoever got the toothpick had to give her a kiss. I quickly pocketed the toothpick discovered in my piece cake, would have swallowed it to prevent others from finding out.
But overall cake is cake, and cake is a good thing. So were the decorations, cutouts of witches and pumpkins and black and orange streamers twisted together. We had apple cider with our sweets, not the best pairing but somehow we struggled through. The boys had discharged their class social obligation; the girls were on the hook for Valentine’s Day.
We had our spin with decorations, too, red and white crepe paper streamers twisted together and lots of construction paper hearts backed with doilies. All of us, including the teacher, made construction paper folders and taped them to the front of our desks for Valentines exchanged between us. What terrible pressure, trying to decide which Valentine went to the boy I liked without it being obvious!
Most of the girls had experience with baking and I was proud to bring frosted sugar cookies as my contribution. Our party checked all the boxes: commercial, American, sanitized. So far, so good.
However. . .
I don’t know if the pagans celebrated this way, but the boys in our class thought it would be the coolest thing in the world if they could have a confetti fight during the party. Amazingly, Mrs. Campbell okayed this, with the provision that it didn’t start until five minutes before the end of the school day AND that the girls clean it all up afterward.
Naturally we wanted to impress the boys. For seeming weeks I met after school with a friend or two to dutifully tear newspapers into tiny squares. Our labor yielded a few good-sized cardboard boxes worth (bigger than you’d bring groceries home in but smaller than you’d use for a puppy who wasn’t house-broken yet).
At last the day arrived. We perused the contents of our Valentine folders, girls likely studying the card from that boy for clues that meant I love you for real. The boys shoveled down cookies and cupcakes. On the clock above the blackboard, ubiquitous in classrooms of that era, minutes and seconds ticked down. The boys circled closer and closer to the teacher’s desk where the boxes of confetti were sequestered.
With twenty seconds to spare the teacher said we could move the boxes to the front of the classroom. The boys dove on the confetti, grabbed two handfuls at a time and, ignoring the girls entirely, chased each other around the room and pelted each other mercilessly. It was over in less than two minutes.
They were abominable.
I thought so at the time, too, Lily, but from a perspective of decades they were really just being boys. I hope these days girls don’t stand passively by like we did and get in on the action, too. Would a teacher even assign Halloween to the boys and Valentine’s Day to the girls these days, for fear of parental reprisals about perpetuating gender stereotypes, etc.?
So what does a Valentine’s party have to do with Ash Wednesday?
Thank you for reining me in, 9. In Mrs. Campbell’s fifth grade we labored like mad making confetti in order to impress the boys. I, for one, thought they would thank us for working so hard and maybe even do something, i don’t know, romantic in response?
You and I know that now, Lily, and In hindsight it was an inexpensive life lesson. It took seeming hours to sweep the confetti out of every corner, out from under every desk. Girls who rode the bus had to leave before we were done so “townies” like us had to finish up.
So what’s the lesson?
To put it simply, 9, love, especially romantic love, can leave you with a big mess. And, like Ash Wednesday which last coincided with Valentine’s Day in 2018 and will again in 2029, love involves sacrifice. Hours of shredding confetti is not unlike giving up something enjoyable for Lent- -sweets, a favorite TV show, whatever- – the 40 day period that begins with Ash Wednesday.
There are differences between Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, of course. Primarily, the former is in anticipation of love while the latter aims for spiritual uplift.
But perhaps the biggest difference is this: Ash Wednesday and Lent are finite, but love. . .