The Christmas greenery and sparkle in the stores have long been replaced by red and pink heart decorations, also bright on darker days if you live in northern climes. The greeting card aisles are chock-full with messages like “You’re the One I’ll Always Love,” “You’re in My Heart Forever,” or “You Changed My Life in the Best Possible Way!“ Red rose bouquets and ribboned chocolate boxes seem to announce, “Buy me, buy me!” Restaurants advertise “Lovebird Special” menus for two. It’s like the whole commercial world is begging us to celebrate romantic love in a material way. And this can be some kind of wonderful, right? Or, maybe, not so much? Maybe Valentine’s Day brings mixed feelings?
I love Valentine’s Day. I remember hugging the cards I got at our elementary school parties close to my chest on my longish walk home. I had fun giving out cards to friends. Year after year, going on 41 years now, I look forward to celebrating with my husband. And with family that’s nearby—or via video calls. A special delicious home-cooked meal is the order of the day. And when our kids were growing up, we enjoyed preparing by baking heart-shaped cookies that we’d decorate with the indispensable candy bearing messages like TRUE ONE, WOW, YOUR GAL, and YOUR GUY. Early February has me eyeing my heart-shaped cake pans and wondering if a fluffy white angel food cake baked with coloured sprinkles and, naturally, adorned with pink icing, will crown the evening. And what about heart-shaped cookies again? My sweet tooth still delights in cinnamon hearts.
But, oh my, Valentine’s Day also fills me with a certain trepidation. Happiness highlights some of the many ways in which sadness is harder to bear on such a day. Like Christmas, Valentine’s Day can be a bitter reminder of what you have lost, or never had. I’ll give just one example of a sad Valentine’s Day that I cannot forget. It comes from the life of one of my favourite writers, Katherine Paterson, the author of over 40 books and winner of many awards. In first grade Katherine came home on Valentine’s Day without a single valentine, an event she said her mother grieved over until her death, and once asked why Katherine didn’t write about that time. Katherine’s answer is profound: “But Mother, all my stories are about the time I didn’t get any valentines.” Full stop. Every time I recall this, I come to a full stop. And I agree: every single one of Katherine’s stories is a Valentine’s card to her readers. Out of her own hurt, transformed, she speaks love to a heart-broken world. Her stories are healing, pointing to the gospel, to God’s loving saving grace freely offered to all. If you’d like to start with one of Paterson’s novels, I’d recommend Bridge to Terabithia or Jacob Have I Loved.
I wonder now, if you had one wish for Valentine’s Day this year, what would it be? If you could send a Valentine’s card to one child, what would you say?
In my years of teaching fairy tales to university students I’ve had much opportunity to consider the ways in which the romantic ideas of happily ever after are perceived. I’ve written about this in an earlier blog, Happily Ever After. And my rich conversations with my students inspired me to write the fiction book Letters to Annie: A Grandmother’s Dreams of Fairy Tale Princesses, Princes, & Happily Ever After. In the book I explore the wealth that fairy tales offer for our life’s journey, and also consider the ways in which we might misread them. It’s written for anyone who loves fairy tales but also has questions and concerns over them. Are they good? Or are they bad? Do we even need them? And just what is “happily ever after”? In this book I follow the story of a grandmother writing to her granddaughter Annie for the first twenty-five years of her life in which they explore these treasured stories. Rather than giving readers false expectations of life, how do these stories leave us richer and more able to navigate the challenges, sorrows, and joys of life with wisdom, courage, and love? Letters to Annie is a dual coming-of-age story: Annie’s, as she experiences some of the joys and sorrows from childhood to young adulthood, but also Omi’s as she ages.
And this brings me back to my earlier questions. If you had one wish for Valentine’s Day this year, what would it be? If you could send a Valentine’s card to one child, what would you say?
In writing Letters to Annie I asked myself how a grandmother might help a granddaughter prepare for her Kindergarten Valentine’s Day party. Likewise, I could have asked how a grandmother or grandfather might help a grandson. How might the older woman encourage the child’s joy while anticipating—and wanting to shield her from, and knowing that she ultimately can’t—the disappointments and sorrows that will find her? Letter 7 is my Valentine for Annie, just as the book itself is a Valentine for my readers. Here’s an excerpt, a Valentine for Annie:
Oh sweetheart Annie, happy Valentine’s Day! What a joy it was yesterday to help you bake Valentine’s Day cookies and make cards for your entire Kindergarten class party. What a glorious time I had, sharing your full-hearted happiness. Happiness—sheer joy—overflowing, bubbling through every word you said, sweeping over and lifting me up in every smile and giggle you gave.
Twenty-two heart-shaped shortbread cookies, icing made pinkest pink. . . .
“Is this one good, Omi?” you asked so often.
“Oh yes, Annie, it’s good. It’s perfect,” I answered, admiring your care and hopefulness. . . .
Annie, I’ve never heard you talk about anyone in the class who has ever been unkind, not to you or to anyone else. Is that because it’s true? Or because you didn’t want to think about it? I didn’t ask, not yesterday. Some things, in fact many things, can keep. . . .
I’m there for you, girl, I’m there for you. And when I fail—which I will—please know that I still want to be there for you. Oh, how I want to be there. . . . But remember, child, when I’m not there, or I’m there but not very helpful to you, there is One who will never fail you. You know: you said it yesterday with such solemn confidence in your eyes as you looked up at me and declared, “Jesus is the best Valentine we could ever have.”
This Valentine’s Day—and indeed, this month of February, being heart month—my hope for myself and my readers is that we can ponder the ways in which we can celebrate love. Maybe consider how our lives might become like a love letter to others. Think more about the different human loves—affection, friendship, romantic love—and like C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves, ponder that in our brokenness each of the human loves must become transformed by the fourth love, God’s love, charity, in order to become ever more true. It’s a journey.
Here’s wishing us all a truly blessed Valentine’s Day!
To learn more about the dual story of Annie and her Omi, and how fairy tales and other good stories can help us, remember to pick up your copy of Letters to Annie.
Order Letters to Annie at FriesenPress, Amazon, or through your local bookstore. And please leave your feedback on Amazon!
Sign up to receive my blog posts on my website:
Follow me on Social Media:
Watch for my March blog: “Spring Fatigue.”