Some say it was Chaucer who transformed a day of religious observation into a celebration of romantic love. They credit the 18th century traditions of courtly love with propelling the liturgical Feast of St. Valentine into a festival of chocolates, roses and romance.
But even before Chaucer, the legends surrounding St. Valentine spurred gestures of affection, according to a short history on Wikipedia. As early as the Middle Ages, the mid-February date was associated with the mating season for birds. Chaucer may have cemented the romantic implications of the date with a line in a poem that acknowledged it was "on St Valentine's Day when every bird cometh then to choose his mate."
If the roots of today's Valentine's Day traditions lie in England, surely the blooms that rise from those roots have flourished in Mexico. In Oaxaca, a highland city in the southern region of Mexico, the hearts and cupids of romantic love seem to emerge as soon as the wise men of Christmas take their leave on January 6.
Here, el Día de Amor produces an outburst of decorations in every shop and restaurant. The preparations begin weeks in advance, promoting sales of streamers of hearts and elaborately cut banners of tissue paper (papel picado) to hang in windows and patios. Special Valentine's Day menus court diners at every restaurant. Celebrations here spawn excess of the brightest, most optimistic sort.
Flower vendors stroll city parks with baskets of roses on their heads. "Te Amo" balloons billow in clusters above the shoulders of young sellers. The air is filled with the romance and drama of AMOR. (I'm using all capital letters intentionally here because it seems that the exuberance with which Oaxaca embraces this occasion requires emphatic punctuation.)
I've found the mood of celebration so strong some years that I have succumbed to the passion and purchased an engraved silver heart to wear on a chain. I've loaded my market basket with paper hearts to festoon the walls of the breakfast area of the small bed and breakfast inn where we have landed on previous winter visits to this colorful, art-filled city. I've toted bags of foil-covered Euphoria chocolate hearts from my home-town candy-maker to share with fellow travelers.
In years past, a former Hollywood set designer, now deceased, festooned the dining room of this inn with tributes to el Día de Amor. His legend lives on in tales of constructions that swayed from the beams and danced across the tables. He, too, felt the fire that St. Valentine ignites in a land where love cushions the stresses of life.
Keep up with my "Not the Retiring Type" column for the local newspaper with this recent piece about my experience in letting go of clutter with a 30-day Declutter Challenge. Read more about a walker's adventures in Oaxaca in a previous blog entry.