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It’s time once again to welcome guest blogger and advice columnist Pious Petunia, offering timely wisdom and incisive comment on the tiniest of modern ailments.

Dear Pious Petunia: This is the second time in recent memory that Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. Is God trying to tell us something? If so, what?

PP: Miss P highly doubts that the Lord is sending us apocalyptic warnings through the convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, even the second time around. We have plenty of apocalyptic warnings coming from other directions, such as climate change, political dysfunction, and threats to world order. Instead, Miss P suspects that this little convergence is yet another sly hint that the Almighty has a sense of humor. We already know this fact from the existence of delightful creatures such as the platypus. Also the penguin.

So let us refrain from scrying profound divine meaning in Ashentine’s Day, and let us further note that deciding how to observe Wednesday, February 14, 2024, hardly constitutes a “conundrum” or an “impending collision” or an “insurmountable conflict,” as some excitable reporters are claiming.

Instead, Miss P recommends relaxed bemusement at the strained and unnecessary efforts of some Christians to claw back holy meaning for Ash Wednesday out of the lacey pink clutches of commercialized romance. Protesting that “Ash Wednesday is God’s Valentine’s Day,” for example, falls sadly flat, making God sound like a dreadfully tonedeaf boyfriend who wants to woo you with sackcloth and weeks of meatless meals.

That’s only one example of the earnest scramble to make sure piety wins out over frivolity this week. Let’s enjoy some more.

This “card” appears to mean well, but how are we to understand this? True love’s sacrifice means wasting a bit of one’s own chocolate to smear out the shape of a cross for one’s beloved? Miss P detects a whiff of a decidedly unattractive passive aggression and performative piety here. No, thank you.  

Image credit: https://www.thedivinemercy.org/

Obviously, the candy heart situation must be addressed. These chalky throwbacks from a simpler time constitute, as treats go, a fittingly undelectable Lenten experience, right up there with toffee, circus peanuts, and Necco wafers. Thus, etching candy hearts with little Lenten sayings fits the medium, so to speak. One must regard the art of the candy heart text as an underappreciated poetic micro-genre:

Image credit: https://www.champaignfumc.org/

A linguistically orientated wag notes for the occasion this fun fact about spelling:

Image credit: Joe Heller | Credit: CNS illustration/Joe Heller

Evidently, it’s important to let the Catholic faithful know that Pope Francis is absolutely thrilled about the coinciding of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day.

Image credit: Getty/thecut.com

If you’re going to try to demonstrate your pious commitments to your Valentine, you might want to avoid the vague aggressiveness of this one. What are you implying there, Valentine?

Image credit: JustByJamie, https://peterssquare.com/

And please leave small children out of this. Some overexcited older person commandeered this poor chap’s forehead for a cute statement. Who can blame the little boy for blushing furiously with embarrassment?

Actually, someone on reddit made this image with a bot in ways I don’t entirely understand…

Let us recall that, last time we experienced a convergence of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, Easter also fell on April Fool’s Day. We are spared from that ominous—or amusing—coincidence this year by the happy intervention of February 29. Thus, Miss P suggests managing this week’s “insurmountable conflict” with calm common sense. If you need to observe Valentine’s Day for whatever reason, let your celebration correspond neatly with Mardi Gras. There. Was that so hard? Then, Wednesday morning, wipe the chocolate smears off your chin, eat bran flakes for breakfast, and warm up your knees for some kneeling in prayer.

Miss P also recommends composing original ditties for the occasion, such as this:

Roses are red, violets are blue.
We’re all going to die.
No chocolates for you.

Try it! It’s fun!

Dear Pious Petunia: Why do some people think that Taylor Swift and her boyfriend, Travis Kelce, are part of a deep-state conspiracy to rig the Super Bowl and win Biden another term?

Miss P: Miss P has been known to listen to Ms. Swift’s folklore on repeat while chopping vegetables for dinner, so she shares your apparent puzzlement about casting the pop megastar as an almighty sorceress puppeteering election politics. We could chalk up this particular frenzy of conspiracy theory nonsense to numerous ingredients, stirred together into a stinking potion: jealousy of Swift’s massive and well-deserved success, that insidious stubborn old monster of misogyny, fear of change, an insatiable appetite for click-bait that must be fed, and of course the florid imaginations of some Americans.

One would think that, in light of this week’s romance-laced holiday, the American public would leave poor Taylor and Travis alone with their blossoming love. Alas, no. Of course, there are seething class issues bubbling beneath some people’s need to cast these two as demons. Travis and Taylor confuse the categories! Americans understand the traditional archetype of the jock and the prom queen. But this burly gladiator, performing ritualized war with professional commentary, also promotes “woke” public health causes—i.e., those nefarious vaccines. And this prom queen, though duly festooned in girly sparkles, subscribes to woke politics and has amassed enormous wealth through talent, hard work, and savvy business moves. So for some people, Travis and Taylor violate all kinds of tribal boundaries. They are more like Romeo & Juliet enlarged to jumbotron size.

Miss P notes, along with professional sociological observers, that certain interest groups benefit greatly from inflaming Americans’ divisions and thus are motivated to set the algorithms a-chugging to perpetuate these divisions. (Canadians, thank you for your patience with the craziness south of your border. Pray for us, please.) However, sometimes, we catch a glimpse of what could be possible if we figure out how much we have in common across our hyper-caricatured divides.

For instance, consider the remarkable moment that occurred last Sunday at the Grammys, when country star Luke Combs shared the stage with his idol, the legendary Tracy Chapman. Last year, Combs won Song of the Year at the Country Music Awards for his cover of Chapman’s 1988 hit, “Fast Car.” At this year’s Grammys, Combs and Chapman performed the song together: a retired, black, queer woman and a young country crooning good ol’ boy. Peter Wehner, in The Atlantic, remarked that “People across an angry and divided nation were given a magical, unifying moment on Sunday.”

Tracy Chapman/Luke Combs, “Fast Car” at the 2024 Grammys

During the performance, Combs positively radiates with wonder at Chapman. Amid his own success, he has insisted on honoring Chapman and her song in every way. “Fast Car” is a melancholy lament about working class struggles, frustrated dreams, a longing to “be someone.” Hmmm. Could it be that many Americans—across our usual tribal divisions—share the dream of escaping economic and class limits, and also share an intuitive understanding that those dreams are likely to remain mere longings, evaporating into nothing like the final chords of the song?

Alas, Miss P has gotten carried away and forgotten that this is a question about Taylor Swift, who was, of course, present at the Grammy’s. Swift racked up six nominations and won Album of the Year for the fourth time. Perhaps she is an almighty sorceress after all.     

And now, two encore questions and responses from previous Valentine’s Days, in honor of unsatisfied gift recipients and long-suffering teachers. Miss P sees you. Thank you for your service.

Dear Miss P: Do women actually like jewelry, flowers, and candy?

PP: Miss P can hardly speak for all women. Some ladies surely swoon over such things, or pretend to, socialized as we are by advertisements in which women with perfect teeth and hair surrender meltingly into the arms of some suspiciously gorgeous male specimen the moment said male proffers one of these supposedly magical tokens. However, a would-be presenter of these traditional gifts—to sweethearts of any gender—must consider that each has its drawbacks.

Flowers are lovely, of course, but one has to consider what flowers have signified since ancient times: beauty is ephemeral and mortality ever imminent. Are we sure that’s the message we wish to send: You are lovely, my dear, but you will die? Come to think of it, when Valentine’s Day falls during Lent, flowers do indeed achieve a perfect balance between loving admiration and pious reflection that one is, in fact, dust. In any case, when cut flowers, after but a few brief days of this brief and mortal life, begin to droop, decay, and turn the vase-water stinky, guess who gets to dispose of the slimy mess? That’s right, the beloved they were meant to please. Memento mori.

Jewelry is particularly problematic because of the expense involved. Jewelry sparkles and may elicit gasps, but dollar-per-pound it is not a good value. You are better off with a bushel of apples or a half dozen nice winter squash.

As for candy, Miss P has noted that American holidays are either candy-intensive, booze-intensive or both. One could create a chart, like this:

If holidays, anthropologically speaking, ritualize ways of grappling with mystery, apparently Americans grapple with mystery either through making ritual purchases that provide instant, sugary gratification, then disposing of the non-recyclable waste, sometimes in couch cushions—or they get themselves tipsy.

In any case, perhaps what people do not realize is that many women—since your question was about women specifically—are actually quite practical. If you wish to spend money to express affection for a particular woman, Miss P would suggest a battery-powered hedge trimmer.

Dear Miss P: I am a fourth-grade teacher, and I am sick to death of those stupid paper valentines that children bring to school. The school policy—to avoid children feeling left out—is that children must bring valentines for every child in the class. I spend most of the day managing the trading chaos and the flurry of stupid little bits of paper. It’s a ridiculous waste of time when I have material to teach! What can I do?

PP: Miss P sympathizes with your plight. This custom is, as you are no doubt cognizant, a bad deal for parents as well, who now have yet another “parent homework” item on their list: purchase silly paper valentines. Add to this the inevitable frosting-laden cupcakes that must be baked or purchased, toted precariously to school, and whose consumption must be supervised by you, the teacher, followed by cleaning up the sticky mess on desks and on bright shining children’s faces.

You are, of course, still inadvertently teaching children even during all this chaos. You are teaching them that showing affection is a competitive obligation. And that even the appearance of social equity involves delicately calibrated social hierarchy. You can bet that children keenly observe who is giving out the coolest, licensed-character valentines (Frozen? Avengers?) and whose are lamely generic. As for those whose papery tokens of social aspiration include a box of candy hearts? These children are fighting for their place on the top of the social heap. (Although, Miss P has noted that the sayings on candy hearts these days are not as innocent as in days of yore. Even the formerly innocent “Be Mine” can now be interpreted as an objectifying gesture of dominance. Caveat emptor.)

What to do? You could send home notes to parents and launch an intensive anti-Valentine’s Day letter campaign. But perhaps a more subversive approach would prove more entertaining for you. You could spend the day (between cupcakes and paper-snippet-trading) teaching about the actual St. Valentines. That’s correct, plural: there were at least three, all of them martyred. The actual history here is murky—a good chance to point out to children that history is constructed and unstable—but no doubt your fourth graders will deeply appreciate the gross-out factor when you discuss the mechanics of beheading.

Then you can move on to the ancient Roman Feast of Lupercalia, supposedly another origin for our modern mid-February holiday. Lupercalia gives you the opportunity for experiential learning since it involves goat sacrifice. More gruesome fun for the children! Since this was a fertility ritual, you could also take this opportunity to get the children started on sex education. Perhaps you will need more goats for that part.

Once parents and administrators hear about all this, you may well have achieved your goal of banning all Valentine’s Day observances entirely.   

Image credit: maymont.org

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

12 Comments

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Drop the mic! Thank you for this!!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well, brilliant, again.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    The booze/candy graph is a bit misleading I’d think in the representation of Easter: the older the household the more indulged on brunch mimosas than on candy . . .

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    On point on all subjects plus smile inducing. Thank you

  • Nancy says:

    Poignant and hilarious. A tough assignment. Grade: A+

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    I’m totally in on the hedge trimmer. Brilliant, as usual.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    I’m a huge Miss P fan – dang, she’s a
    brilliant writer! 🙂

  • Jodi M says:

    This made my day. Each section could stand alone! My favorite love gifts over time have been a battery-powered leaf blower (ideal for cleaning the garage without using a broom) and a foldable, portable hand cart for toting around my rug hooking supplies to camps and workshops. Excellent gifts, and I think of my beloved every time I use them. Thanks, Deb!

  • Henry Baron says:

    Has Miss Pious Petunia ever considered running for President – if not for the country, then maybe for Synod?
    Both could use some levity, spiced with wisdom, eh?

  • Deb Toering says:

    Delightful and so appreciated. I agree with Henry- run for office in any of those organizations.
    Deb T

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    From history.com, “Valentine’s Day uses some of Lupercalia’s symbols, intentionally or not, such as the color red which represented a blood sacrifice during Lupercalia and the color white which signified the milk used to wipe the blood clean and represents new life and procreation.” Kids today could use their school lunch milk!

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