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.

hith-st-valentine-e

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.

 

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In continuing my “generations” blog theme, I wanted to share a personal story pertaining to “The Greatest Generation.”

Every year now, families mourn the passing of those who belonged to what Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation.” These were “the good warriors,” born from 1909 to 1928. The experiences that bound this generation together, however, did not begin with World War II. Before they fought, they grew up watching their parents lose jobs, scrimp and save during the Great Depression. And that frugal mentality stuck.

Last year, I mourned the passing of my Uncle James. Lester, my father, and the eldest of his siblings, had a warm spot in his heart for James, his only brother. He waited a long time for him to be born, because his four other siblings—Carol, Gertrude, Mildred and Agnes—were girls. James had a sunny, quiet disposition, and I could tell that he adored Lester.

Growing up on a Wisconsin farm, I didn’t see much of Uncle James, who lived far away “in the cities” and serviced organs for a living for Schmidt Music. I was surprised that such an occupation existed! James always drove his family to the farm to see ours during the holidays.

What I remember most about my uncle was how he and his wife Marion, along with my father and my mother Sigrid, took off on an adventure to far-away Florida during the cold Midwestern winter of 1955. I had just turned thirteen the month before.

My dad wanted to check out the new humped-back Brahma beef cattle newly introduced to Florida. He dreamed of moving south to warmer weather. He yearned for the freedom of not being tied down to dairy cows. My mother was bogged down with children to raise. She had never traveled beyond the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  She looked forward to the first vacation she’d ever had.

In my family, tales begin and end with the year and make of a car. This one is no different.

1949 Nash. Photo Credit: Google Images

1949 Nash
Photo Credit: Google Images

My younger siblings and I watched Uncle James and Aunt Marion pull into the dirt driveway of our farm in a 1949 Nash. We all gathered around to take a look.  The front seats could lie flat, fitting into the rear seats to make a bed. Marion and James would sleep in there, and Sigrid and Lester would pitch a small pup tent each night. The Nash was stuffed to the hilt with all manner of food staples. The four planned to purchase fresh food and picnic along the way. They would cook outside on a small camp stove most nights.

My mother talked about how difficult it was to sleep in a pup tent alongside the road; one night, they climbed back into the car to take refuge from the cold. The next night, they checked into a motel, but that was the only time. They may have stopped at a restaurant once or twice.  Frugal to the max, the four drove for about 4,000 miles on $45.00. That Nash averaged 25 mpg. My mother bragged about buying tangerines for ten cents a dozen, grapefruit for seventy-five cents a bushel, and carrots for five cents a bunch. Wieners cost 29 cents a pound.

The four travelers were awestruck by images of the south: vibrant roses blooming in Georgia; gray moss choking shade trees; tobacco fields stretching as far as the eye could see; and finally, lush Florida farms full of winter vegetables, pineapples and peach trees. But what I remember them talking about the most was how they were shocked to see separate restrooms for the colored folks, even separate entrances at drive-in theaters. Living in the rural Midwest, they had never seen nor imagined such blatant discrimination!

That Nash was a real trouper! It limped home the last four miles with a second flat tire—and without a spare. After business hours, no service stations had been open. There was no way to repair the tire. The four tired passengers stumbled into our farmhouse at midnight. I heard a ruckus, but being a teenager, promptly fell back asleep. The next morning I found that, finding all the beds full of sleeping children, Aunt Marion and Uncle James had simply crashed on the floor.

My father never fulfilled that dream of heading south until he moved to Texas upon retiring! Living so far away, he wasn’t able to see much of Uncle James in his later years. Aunt Marion was always very sweet to my mother, who was trapped on that dairy farm and eventually raised nine children there. Sigrid didn’t get out much, but she often talked about that Florida escapade. Who knows? Perhaps those tales of adventure fueled my own lifelong dreams of traveling!