If I were to be granted permission to rebrand Valentine’s Day, my first decree would read au revoir to the eponymous third century saint and bonjour monsieur to a more apt ambassador whose tutelage would be de rigueur for those in search of that most elusive elixir, l’amour. Step forward Pepé Le Pew, that skunky potent mix of Charles Aznavour, Warren Beatty and Casanova, he will be sure to teach us all how to take a S.W.A.L.K on the wild side. If today should be about anything it should be about fifty shades of seduction and there is no one more tenacious, inventive and irrepressible than the Gallic cartoon skunk.
Personally I would get an injunction against him but you can’t help but admire a suitor so over the top in his passions as to declare after a less than successful date: “I am the broken heart of love. I am the disillusioned. I wish to enlist in the Foreign Legion so I may forget. Take me!”
Pepé Le Pew would be so much more comprehensible as a romantic icon, even with the heavy French accent than the mysterious figure whose name remains wrapped so tightly around this day for lovers. We know very little about Saint Valentine of Teani, only legends and stories have bloomed facts are few. In 496 AD when Pope Gelasius I established the feast of St Valentine as the 14 February, even the pontiff was left scratching his biretta in bafflement as to what this saintly figure actually did to deserve his martyrdom. Instead he wrote about a new raft of saints, including Valentine: “...whose names are justly referenced among men but whose acts are known only to God.”
In the absence of the Almighty’s assurances, we can only go by the stories handed down through the centuries, as even the year of his death is described as either 269 AD, 270 AD or 273 AD, with only the date of his demise, 14 February, remaining consistent. What we do know is that Valentine’s death was rather bloody, as he was martyred during the reign of Claudius Gothious, who according to legend, had caught Valentine marrying Christian couples during a period of persecution. He was beaten with clubs, stoned and when he still resolutely clung to life, finally beheaded. As if Valentine’s death for the ‘crime’ of uniting young lovers in marriage was not romantic enough, there are also tales that prior to his execution he restored the sight of the jailer’s daughter and, on the eve of his death, wrote her a final note signed, yes, rather conveniently for the card industry: “your Valentine”.
The good saint’s ties to romance were first sealed by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1382 when he wrote a poem to honour the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, with the lines: “for this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every bride cometh there to choose her mate”. For in this time of chivalry in the Middle Ages there was an attachment to St Valentine but it was not until the 18th century that lovers began exchanging flowers, sweets and cards on 14th February. As the Victorians believed it was bad luck to sign a love note, the practice of anonymous missives took off and we also have them to thank for choosing red roses as a suitable accompaniment, which were recognised as the favourite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love.
Those who have studied the history of St Valentine’s Day down through the centuries argue that its roots and positioning in the calendar, is derived from the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, dedicated to the God Luperus, on whose feast day young men would draw from a stone jar the names of women and pair with them for the remainder of the festival. (The jar was clearly the Tinder of ancient Rome.)
Yet there is another reason for re-branding Valentine’s Day, it’s clearly on the slide. The old romantic has lost his footing to a brash young upstart: Halloween. For Valentine’s Day was traditionally the third biggest “event” for retailers after Christmas and Easter but now the proliferation of slutty mushroom costumes and sexy red devils have pushed the old roué into fourth place. In Britain we may still be spending over £500 million a year on Valentine’s Day, mostly on jewellery, flowers and dining out but we our desire appears to be wilting. At its pulsing red heart, the new ‘Valentine’s Day’ of Pepe Le Pew isn’t for the “smug marrieds” who purchase cards, order flowers and make restaurant reservations, out of duty and commitment rather than a burning desire. Instead it should be exclusively for those, of any age, who are currently alone and unattached and who want to reach out for another’s hand, and so run the bittersweet risk of rejection. The true love of Valentine’s Day requires a risk, it means taking a gamble, a throw of the dice which can lead to either heartbreaking loss or life’s greatest prize.
A few years ago the author Jeffrey Eugenides, edited a collection of love stories called My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, in which he argued that the greatest love stories never have a happy ending because desire too often depends of pursuing what we can’t fully possess. I’m not sure if I’d totally agree but he did make a powerful case for the celebration of love: “we value love not because it’s stronger than death but because it’s weaker. Say what you want about love: death will finish it...The perishable nature of love is what gives love its profound importance in our lives. If it were endless, if it were on tap, love wouldn’t hit us the way it does.” No-one knows the force with which love can strike more than Pepé Le Pew.