y first experience with Valentine’s Day was as a fourth grader. My family had just moved from Kamagambo, Kenya, to Fort Worth, Texas, and Valentine’s Day was one more novelty—more interesting than curling irons and hairspray, less interesting than Cabbage Patch dolls and roller skates. I remember my mother helping me buy cards—the cartoon ones—which I then presented to each of my classmates. I remember eating chalky candy hearts, then reading and rereading the cards I’d received. It had been a difficult year, but I remember Valentine’s Day as frivolous and light—much like the cupcakes a classroom mother had made for the occasion.
Valentine’s Day would not be a novelty again until I moved to South Korea. I had grown immune to the charms of helium balloons and overpriced roses. To mix holiday aphorisms, my general feeling on February 14 was bah, humbug! But in South Korea love was celebrated a bit differently.
On February 14 women gave men chocolate. On March 14 (White Day), men gave women candy. And on April 14 (Black Day), everyone neglected on Valentine’s Day and White Day gathered in solidarity and ate jajangmyeon—a dish of noodles served with a black bean-paste sauce.
Caught up in the novelty, I bought boxes of chocolates, and on Valentine’s Day I passed them out with hearty bows. On White Day I accepted long-stemmed lollypops wrapped in crinkly plastic and tied with a ribbon. When Black Day finally came around, I decided to celebrate once again. Not a jajangmyeon enthusiast, I made a ramyeon noodle soup filled with carrots, leeks, and tofu. This staggered festivity was the ideal way, I thought, to celebrate love.
The origin of Valentine’s Day, however, harkens back to two martyrs, both named Valentine and both said to have died on February 14. One, a doctor as well as a priest, reportedly treated the poor for free. Little is known about these two Valentines. Some even suggest they are the same person. But based on what is known, there seems to be a tenuous connection between the martyrs and the modern holiday.
My bah, humbug days are behind me. There is something delightful about a holiday that festoons itself in pink. But I’m intrigued at the possibility of also celebrating altruism and affordable health care.
Here in the United States there are days that highlight good causes. December 10 is National Human Rights Day; November 13 is World Kindness Day; September 21 is International Day of Peace. But these are no more a part of our daily lives than National Ice Cream Sandwich Day (August 2) or International Picnic Day (June 18).
Perhaps it’s better that altruism isn’t commercialized on the scale of Valentine’s Day and that discussions about health care aren’t allocated to a single date on the calendar.
I recently read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It’s a book as well-written and absorbing as it is educational. The book chronicles the work of Paul Farmer, a doctor who fights disease in the poorest corners of the world. Why, Farmer asks, should the rich be entitled to better medical care than the poor?
While researching his book, Kidder accompanied Farmer to Haiti, Cuba, Peru, Mexico, and Russia. Of their travels Kidder states: “His itinerary is pretty much restricted to visiting hospitals, slums, and prisons. The dreadful places of the world. I hadn’t imagined that there were so many of those, and I hadn’t known just how dreadful they were. But the trips weren’t dreary and depressing, because Farmer and his colleagues were doing something tangible, something meaningful, something that was actually improving those places.”*
When I think of Valentine’s Day now, I think of Paul Farmer and all the other health-care workers who bring medicine to those who can’t afford it. They labor each day in the spirit of Valentine, believing that while poverty and preventable deaths are bleak topics, the task is not insurmountable.
One doesn’t have to work in medicine to be involved. This Valentine’s Day educate yourself on public health issues. You can visit Partners in Health’s Web site (the organization begun by Paul Farmer) at www.pih.org or ADRA’s Web site at www.adra.org (look under Primary Health Care).
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Sari Fordham is a former student missionary, now working on a post-graduate degree at the University of Minnesota.