We recently received an order that seemed to be a Valentine gift with the message “When one looks into water, one sees one’s own image. But when one looks into wine, one beholds the heart of another.” I have no idea who first wrote these sentences, nor have I ever seen them before. And the person, who chose them for his message, didn’t answer my email when I asked if he knew the author. But the lines are truly striking and provoked a conversation that night at the dinner table about the meaning and observance of Valentine’s Day. Responses among the four of us eating together ranged from “bah, humbug” to reverence. You guessed it. The “bah, humbug” came from an older man, and the reverence came from a teenaged girl. But in between these poles, other responses to Valentine’s Day or any other public holiday are possible.
The “bah humbug” argument centered around the commercialism of every holiday and how holidays have been reduced to feverish consumerism devoid of any meaning other than to stimulate the economy. The other extreme was that Valentine’s Day honors love, and no amount of chocolate, roses, champagne, poetry, or anything red could be too much to throw at the occasion, given its gravity.
In an era of polarization, the “middle ground” has become the new wisdom although exactly where that is, is vague. Fortunately, I happen to be standing on it unless someone sneaks up on me and pushes me off the spot. First of all, holidays interrupt everyday habits and sometimes even produce an extra day away from work. This is good. Just ask the Italians, who celebrate a different saint every day of the year and observe more holy days than work days.
Secondly, holidays have themes and point our attention to concepts that we don’t address on a daily basis. For example, Valentine’s Day celebrates love in its various permutations, especially romantic and familial love. You may love someone or many, but you probably don’t navigate your daily life, analyzing and celebrating this love. Or maybe you do, in which case you’re more evolved than the rest of us or at least have more time. So Valentine’s Day provides us with a national time-out when we can consider love and those, whom we love, in a direct and deliberate way. And even though our culture gives us symbols to express the concept, like chocolate, champagne, hearts, and flowers, we can also celebrate with entirely personal expressions. Which brings me back to those evocative lines,
“When one looks into water, one sees one’s own image. But when one looks into wine, one beholds the heart of another.” In other words, we may be naturally self-absorbed, but love compels our attention toward others as does wine. Happy Valentine’s Day.