Culture


 

Valentine’s Day was a special day when I was in third grade. My teacher would put the names of everyone on my class into a jar, shake it up, pass it around, and everyone would draw a name. That person would be my “best friend” i.e. “valentine” for the rest of that day. In later grades, students exchanged homemade valentines.

But I never really understood where that idea came from. So today, I decided to find out. Valentine was a Christian priest in third-century Rome who evidently had a romantic streak. The Emperor, Claudius II forbade Roman soldiers to marry because he thought that they would prefer to stay at home with their families rather than fight in his foreign wars. Valentine secretly married couples, defying the order.  The Emperor found out and he was imprisoned and eventually put to death on February 14, 269 A.D. After Rome became Christianized, Valentine was made a saint and his day was observed every year as St. Valentine’s Day.

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Photo Credit: History.com

This holiday probably replaced the pagan Roman festival of fertility called Lupercalia. Lupercus was the god of shepherds and his priests wore goatskins. During the festival, those “romantics” were drunk and many ran around naked. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. Even so, young women reportedly lined up for the men to hit them, believing this would make them fertile. The brutal event included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. They were “coupled” for the remainder of the festival—and longer, if the woman could put up with the beast!

When the festival was changed to St. Valentine’s day, men’s raucous behavior tamed down considerably. The names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper, put into jars, and drawn by young men. Those girls would then be then man’s sweetheart for the year. That process was not all that different from modern times.

 

You’ve already taken your big summer vacation, but now, towards the end of summer, your family may be asking what’s next. Many small towns across the USA tend to hold special celebrations towards fall, just as the temperature begins to drop. These festivals feature a wide variety of themes and often include parades, entertainment, and lots of food. If you take the time to attend one of these events, you won’t be disappointed.

Here in Wisconsin, we are in the lull between the county and state fairs. State fairs tend to be huge events that span a week or more and sprawl over many acres. You end the day with aching feet, too tired to think about the long drive home. So why not attend a county fair instead? That’s what my husband, Gunter, and I did this year. A few weeks ago, we enjoyed the home-town flavor of the local Polk County Fair in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. This fair brought back thrilling high school memories of walking the midway hand-in-hand with my boyfriend’s ring around my neck. We were going steady and sat dangerously close on the Ferris Wheel and crushed tight on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Later my steady hit the jackpot and, with a flourish, he handed me the huge teddy-bear he won as his prize.

I pointed to the grandstand, “Wow, that looks so much smaller now!” I explained how, as a pre-teen, I’d modeled in front of those bleachers as a participant in 4-H, an organization country kids joined. I wore tight white slacks made of “white duck” and a red-and-white handkerchief blouse I’d sewn myself. The day Gunter and I went to the fair, the “demolition derby” was the main event; we sat on wooden bleachers cheering for drivers to destroy their opponents’ cars by crashing into each other until they could run no more.

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On the trek back to the field where our car was parked, we stopped every so often along the livestock buildings to pet a calf, a llama, or a goat.  The top winners would go on to the State Fair.

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During the summer and fall seasons in Polk County, one can find a celebration of something almost every week-end. With a lake every four miles and many rivers between them, concerts at the overlook,” usually a village park, are common. You can search the local papers to find fishing tournaments; tractor and lawnmower pulling contests; soapbox derbies; car, truck, motorcycle and tractor shows; brew fests, wine tastings, rib fests, and fish fries; art exhibits; movies under the stars; Monarch festivals; quilting shows; and so much more.

My favorite celebrations are the annual town festivals, replete with marching bands, parades and coronations of all sorts from Cheese Queen to Pumpkin Queen. Amery has the Fall Festival; Centuria, the Orchard Festival; St. Croix and Taylors Falls, Wannigan Days; Osceola, the Pig Roast; Milltown, the Pumpkin Festival; Luck, Lucky Days; and Clayton, Cheese Days.

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Next year, consider celebrating America’s birthday in a small town, the kind of place where everyone knows each other as a neighbor, not just on social media. We celebrated in unincorporated Wanderoos, where the main street is only six blocks long. We stood to watch the parade until a resident offered us chairs he took from the village park! I’ll bet you that won’t happen in the city.

“We are all in the same boat, and we only have one boat.” –Paul Anastas

Circumnavigators, of all people, appreciate how the earth is one. While sailing from San Diego to the Marquesas Islands, twenty-one days without the sight of land, I would marvel at the curved horizon all around us; we were right in the middle of the dark blue sea.

Breathtaking days were followed by overwhelming nights. I wrote these words in my journal and later in my book, Maiden Voyage:

Pacific Bliss glides gently forward, skimming the ocean waves. I know she’s moving because I hear the slosh-slosh of her hulls against the waves and the occasional creak-creak of the mainsail swaying as it tries to touch the stars. I feel like I’m encased in a giant dome, surrounded by stars crowded together so tightly they resemble a thousand Milky Ways. I am mesmerized. I find many sections of the sky so dense with stars that I cannot separate the individual star from the primordial soup. I am seeing constellations that I’ve never seen nor heard of before, lights that have taken millions of light years to come to me.

I feel unimportant, insignificant. That’s how it is at sea, a mystical experience almost impossible to duplicate on land.

“A wonderful, starry night,” I write in my logbook at the end of my watch, “the stuff of dreams.”

NASA astronomer John O’Keefe said that, to the astronomer, the earth is a very sheltered and protected place. A marvelous picture from Apollo 8 show the blue and cloud-wrapped earth, seen just at the horizon of the black-cratered, torn, and smashed lunar landscape. The contrast would not be lost on any creature. The thought, “God loves those people,” cannot be resisted. Yet the moon is a friendly place compared to Venus, where, from skies 40 km high, a rain of concentrated sulfuric acid falls toward a surface that is as hot as boiling lead. Then O’Keefe goes on to say that Venus is friendly compared to the crushing pressure of white dwarfs or the unspeakable horrors of the black holes of neutron stars. He writes:

We are by astronomical standards, a pampered, cosseted, cherished group of creatures…If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances were created for man to live in…Someone made a lot of special arrangements and took a lot of time so that each of us could be alive and experiencing this just-right world.

 

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As shown from page 28,  In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: Maiden Voyage

“The earth is what we all have in common,” said Naturalist and writer, Wendell Barry. During this Earth Week, and every day of the year, is up to each of us to cherish this gift and to treat it with the respect it deserves.