Editorial: February 14 - The True Meaning of Valentine’s Day

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Today, February 14 is Valentine’s Day and Nigerians will join their counterparts the world over to celebrate love in all its forms – filial, erotic, plutonic and even agape. But as Nigerians celebrate the day specially set aside for lovers to exchange avowals, some unedifying developments raise fundamental questions about the real significance of a day that has been largely hijacked by commercial interests, which is now fueling a materialist culture. Nigerians with their remarkable genius for travesty have transformed St. Valentine’s Day, meant to celebrate true love and affection into a day when young girls advertise their breasts and buttocks on the streets while married couples revel in Bacchus and all kinds of self-indulgent extra-marital eccentricities. In effect, Valentine’s Day has become a day of infamy and national shame.


By tradition, Valentine’s Day is characterized by the anonymous exchange of flowers, love notes, cards, letters, confectionaries and token gifts between persons of the opposite sex in celebration of St. Valentine. Historically, Valentine’s Day was named after a Roman priest who lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius. Emperor Claudius believed that for the men in his army to be physically and mentally fit to win wars, they ought not to get married. He thus prohibited young men from getting married.


St. Valentine being against this law, secretly joined couples in marriage. He was arrested and sentenced to death. While in jail, he became friends with the Emperor’s blind daughter. She was a source of strength to him by her words of encouragement that kept him going till the day of his execution. Because of the bond he had formed with the blind girl, on the eve of his execution, he wrote her a note titled “From your first Valentine.” Later in 496 AD, Pope Gelasius began the celebration of Valentine’s Day in his memory. Since then, February 14, has taken a different shape. 


In Nigeria, Valentine’s Day has become a day lovers go the extra mile to ensure their loved ones get the best of gifts. It is a day when husbands cheat on their wives and vice-versa. It is a day when teenagers browse pornography on the internet and on their cell phones. It is a day when girls lose their virginity and some even become pregnant; a day when burgeoning waistlines, supple breasts, wrinkled buttocks and stretch-mark tummies are on full display on the streets in our towns and cities. As Nigerians celebrate Valentine’s Day, 20% of children below the age of 15 are already sexually active. 85% of men and 77% of women had sex before the age of 19. The youths are languishing in immorality. About three out of every 10 teenagers now have one sexually transmitted disease (STDs) or the other, according to the World Health Organization. 


In characteristic Nigerian style, men will buy sumptuous meals and drinks for their ladies, and whisper sweet-nothings into their ears. The ladies will confess and profess their undying love for their men. But beyond the garrulity of love avowals, it is no exaggeration that giving and receiving of gifts – and not any type but expensive and unique ones – has become central to the celebration of Valentine’s Day.  It is not uncommon to be warned in advance not to send “mere flowers and or card but something sensible”. So, today, no object is too expensive or too large to be expected from or given to one’s “Valentine”. 


Two issues need be examined in respect of Valentine’s Day. First, the gifts are supposed to be symbolic and this is why, in its early days, paper valentines in the form of handwritten notes and poems, red roses and such other simple but nevertheless sentimentally valuable items were exchanged. The point here is that this day should not provide an opportunity to extort or to exploit. Indeed, emphasis by a lady on material gifts would demean her as cheap and a chattel.   


There are many ways to show affection, appreciation and love on this day. Even the verbal expression of love from a loved one is of immense value especially in those marital relationships in which it is seldom uttered or heard. The risk here is that the speaker might be challenged to “prove” it by backing it with cash or something tangible. Here again, materialism rears its ugly head and distorts the spirit of the occasion. Second, contrary to popular belief in Nigeria, it is not only the men in a relationship that must give; the women can and should too. For example, it is known that in South Korea, and in Japan, women give chocolates to men on Valentine’s Day while men give non-chocolate candy in return.


St. Valentine’s Day offers an opportunity to heal emotional injuries and improve relationships at interpersonal, domestic, and intergroup level. Nigerians should therefore see its value in a larger context and let the spirit of pure love, appreciation and affection for one another, reign in their hearts on Valentine’s Day and always. In our dog-eat-dog society marked by rising inequality and growing inhumanity of man to man; where endemic corruption has run riot; where so few steal so much from so many with impunity, the value of love is something that should be imbibed in the national psyche. 


In celebrating Valentine’s Day, Nigerians should reflect on what it truly means to be one’s brother’s keeper and to love others as the self. Given the anger, frustration, angst and anomie reigning in the land, Nigeria is one country in need of love as a value and as a way of life. Valentine’s Day should therefore inspire a devotion to the higher values of love, not those of lascivious licentiousness.