The Meaning of Love

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Is Valentine’s Day putting more pressure on the society, Solomon Elusoji asks

According to Statistics Brain, a self-styled research institute based in Los Angeles, the average global spending on a typical Valentine’s Day can easily surpass $13 billion, (according to market research firm, IBIS World, Valentine’s Day sales reached $17.6 billion in 2010) with millions of people purchasing flowers, cards, candy, jewelry, and gift cards for their loved ones. There is a lot of dining and eating out too. Although the research institute does not provide clarity on how it arrives at its numbers, they make for fascinating reading. One of the data points on the website reads that 53 per cent of women will end their relationship if they don’t get something for Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day, feted as a day for romance (or, depending on who you ask, a day for love), has a quirky history. It most likely started with decision of the Catholic Church to honour the martyrdom of two men – both named Valentine – who were executed by Emperor Claudius II on February 14, during the 3rd Century A.D. Then, in the 5th Century, Pope Gelasius, in a bid to stamp out traditional Roman pagan rituals, decided to merge St. Valentine’s Day with the feast of Lupercalia, which used to also be celebrated in February. According to Arnie Seipel, writing for NPR, Lupercalia was a brutal, naked matchmaking feast, where “the men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animal they had just slain.” Quoting a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Noel Lenski, Seipel adds that Lupercalia was “a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it.”

Valentine’s Day can trigger feelings of sadness and anxiety, Psychotherapist, Linda Walter, argues. “TV commercials selling diamonds, flowers, chocolate, and even cars began to show up almost a month ago, commercials filled with people depicting perfect, everlasting love,” she says. “It’s a day filled with a lot of expectations because of all the hype. It’s hard, both for those in relationships and those single, not to compare ourselves to the loving couples shown in the commercials. We may feel a sense of deep loss if our lives don’t measure up.”

In a country like Nigeria, this kind of anxiety manifests itself in a variety of ways. On Twitter and Facebook, there are funny memes depicting boyfriends breaking up with girlfriends on Valentine’s Day eve, so as to avoid spending money on gifts and costly dates. Even Churches organise funky Valentine parties so that their young members are not tempted with expensive, debauchery outings. In a sense, the materialistic expectations of Valentine, in an economy burdened with unemployment and widespread poverty, is an harbinger of anxiety in itself. It is this sense of lack that also spreads to the emotional anxiety felt by single people who dread Valentine because of the emptiness it might reveal about their lives. But does it say anything about the meaning of love?

A corrupted meaning

Interestingly, this year’s Valentine coincides with the day Catholics across the world are expected to start observing the 40 day Lenten season, one of the most important holy days in the Catholic Church’s calendar year. And clerics across the country are beginning to seize the moment to invade the public consciousness about their definition of what Valentine should stand for and, in extension, the meaning of love.

“We need genuine love all over the world to heal broken hearts and to melt the heart of stones so that lasting peace may permeate the whole of humanity,’’ a cleric and the Director of Social Communication, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos in a statement in Lagos, Gabriel Osu, says. Valentine, he posits, should be about be about nurturing our families and promoting the spirits of giving, sharing and sacrificing. “The first Valentine sacrificed his life so that couples may be united,” he explains in a press statement recently. “Also, Jesus Christ laid down his life for us to gain salvation; we must be ready to make meaningful sacrifices in life.”

When contacted by THISDAY, a distinguished Sociologist at the University of Benin, Barr. Imatinyan Obarisiagbon, echoed the cleric’s thoughts, reiterating that the real meaning of Valentine has to do with sacrificial love.

“But, as Nigerians, our understanding of Valentine over the years has been corrupted. What it means to us, which ought not to be, is a day to date a young lady in an amorous way, not in the sacrificial sense,” he says. “Sacrificial love does not lead to anxiety or give stress if you follow it in the right way. But because of the extraneous variable that we have brought into the meaning of Valentine, it has led to several persons being anxious and led to a breakdown in relationships that were otherwise okay. It has also led to people developing cold feet about entering into a relationship. That’s where the anxiety comes in. Young men are now worried whether they will be able to meet the demands of would-be girlfriends or fiancees.”

And, more unfortunately perhaps, the Sociologist also pointed out that this kind of anxiety can have a much deeper negative imprint on the stability of society. “It can also lead to crime, because young men have to seek for funds,” he says. “And in doing that they could go into petty stealing, burglary and even more serious crimes like kidnapping and robbery just to make money so that they can please and impress their romantic partners.”

Mama Valentine

However, at a gift store on Commercial Avenue in Yaba, Creamery Fare, one woman, Mrs. Bola Adeniji, is running a business that is attempting to help people reduce their Valentine anxieties. When THISDAY visited recently, the store was emblazoned in red. A canopy had been erected in front and underneath were tables filled with hampers of different sizes, flowers, cards. “There is something for everyone,” Mrs. Adeniji says. “So whether you are a student with a tight budget or a millionaire willing to splash the cash, Creamery Fare is designed to cater to you.

“Valentine is more popular than Christmas, because it is observed even by Muslims,” Mrs. Adeniji, a Septuagenarian who is fondly referred to as ‘Mama Valentine”, notes. “Everybody celebrates Valentine because it is a universal lovers’ day. It is known all over the world as a day dedicated to lovers.”

This popularity, she suggests, has been good for business. But the commercial boom has been driven mainly by the de-romanticisation of Valentine. “Valentine has transcended from being lovers’ day to a day of love and should be celebrated by all,” she explains. “There are now Valentine cards for mothers, siblings and just anyone, as against the past where it was just for lovers.”

In the 70s and 80s, Creamey Fare was an ice cream parlour which was usually flooded by University of Lagos students. So when Mrs. Adeniji moved in to open her gift shop some 15 years ago, she decided to stick to the creamy name, hoping to maximise its huge local brand appeal. It worked. Her ‘Mama Valentine’ tag testifies to her store’s popularity for lovers looking to surprise their beloved.

Her job, she tells THISDAY, is to eliminate any Valentine anxiety that comes either from being single or financially handicapped. “There is something for everyone,” she reiterates.