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Whether we like it or not, we are living in revolutionary times. Satellite broadcasting, the internet, and social networking have connected the world in ways that people never dreamed of at the beginning of the millennium. People in the Czech Republic have recently been celebrating unofficial holidays, formerly known only to Anglo-American literature lovers. A part of Czechs – suspicious to all foreign novelties by default – is rather hostile to these phenomena: there is a TV add in which the Czech army shoots at Santa Claus and on Halloween there is (or was) Antihalloween, a protest march organised to show that if there is anything to celebrate here, it is All Souls’ Day!
There are no passionate protests against Valentine’s Day celebrations, even though a part of the population demonstrates their theatrical rejection of this holiday that they consider a nonsense, and another part is absolutely indifferent to the whole Valentine’s Day thing. I discovered that when we were scheduling night duty at the hospital and not a single of my fellow doctors understood my comment that only singles would probably want to be on duty on 14th February. However, from the commercial point of view, Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity for business owners, so foreigners living in the CR are sure to notice. The price of red roses goes up, restaurants and hotels offer special Valentine’s Day deals, there is romantic slush in cinemas and on TV. It is not a firm tradition, though, so if you and your Czech partner are about to have your first Valentine’s Day together, the best thing you can do is simply to ask what he or she expects. And please note that getting a two-metre plush bear (a common Arabic way of expressing love) is not something that can be left to the last minute in the Czech Republic! Toy stores don’t usually sell bears that big – you have to order it through specialised websites. There you can find a photo of a lady in erotic lingerie hugging the bear, accompanied with the slogan “Say it with a bear!”.
This sober approach to the holiday cannot be found all over the world. In some countries it is forbidden and even punishable to celebrate Valentine’s Day, be it for religious reasons or due to the fact that the authorities see it as a product of rotten Western civilisation (whose aim is to destroy local traditional values, of course). Valentine’s Day flooded Syria (my homeland) with the availability of satellite broadcasting. It didn’t come from the rotten West, though – it only crossed the border with our more ‘progressive’ neighbours, the Lebanese. And I can say that there isn’t a second holiday that would change the visual face of entire cities. Not even in the most communist of communist times did we see so much red colour on any free space, available for commercial use. The deluge of teddy bears clutching hearts, hearts as such, and hearts joined with anything red seemed surreal. Everyone was buying up red flowers of all kinds, both natural and dyed. My friend, a cartoonist, drew a joke in which a greengrocer chases after a lady with a bouquet of radishes in his hand, thinking: “They are red – are they?!”
As part of this initial frenzy, my sisters called my dad at work on Valentine’s Day and told him it was necessary to buy a present for mum. Totally confused and disoriented, my father rushed to the nearest store with the vague idea that he had to buy red, love-themed something. He proudly brought home a gaudy red plaster bedside lamp that would do a great service in any house of ill fame (‘sexy atmosphere’, as described by the salesman). I can confirm that it was a big surprise for mum.
With time, the overall atmosphere calmed down a bit, but Valentine’s Day has remained an integral part of local traditions, competing only with equally popular Mothers’ Day. However, there are a lot of pitfalls that adolescents in love have to face due to society’s conservatism. The act of gift giving often resembles a sophisticated espionage operation, including the use of contact persons (“I’ll leave the present for you at my cousins’, your alleged friend.”), dead boxes (“The present will be behind the back wheel of the white van on the corner at 7 p.m.”), or even a field operation: the boy walks down a deserted street with a neutral looking sack in his hand; his love watches him from afar. When covered by a parked car, he discreetly drops the sack and walks on, then the girl picks up the sack just as discreetly. The Czechs are missing all these adrenaline moments. They have sacrificed their traditional values to the vice of liberalism and now they survive only in folk songs like this one:
When I went to see the maiden
Her father followed me
Carrying a whip
Under his blouse
Let me go, sir
My intentions are sincere
My intentions are sincere
with your daughter
Speaking about traditions, for those who don’t know it, we must point out that for the Czechs, love time is the 1st of May, not the 14th of February. Yes, while most of the world celebrates Labour Day and in socialist countries workers, peasants and committed intellectuals go marching, Czechs kiss under a cherry blossom tree (preferably on Petřín Hill). The cherry tree is also a communist symbol, but that has no relevance here. The first of May has been made famous as a love day by the Czech poet Karel Hynek Mácha in his poem May, which I highly recommend to any foreigner proficient in Czech. Its beginning is promising:
Late evening, on the first of May —
The twilit May — the time of love.
And there are other themes typical for time of love, such as seduced virgins, highwaymen, patricide and breaking on the wheel. In short, romance as hell, as my grandmother used to say.
Whether in February or May, celebrating love is a beautiful custom. So why not do it twice a year?