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Valentine's Day, a Romantic Time in Washington DC - 2004-02-14

The origin of the ancient holiday, Valentine's Day, isn't known for certain. Some authorities trace it to a martyr in the early Christian Church St. Valentine, who secretly helped young couples to marry. Another version traces it to an ancient Roman festival linked to fertility; still others believe it has to do with birds that mate in the spring. Today Valentine's Day, which falls every February 14 is largely associated with romantic love. Alison Novella, a holiday expert with Hallmark cards in Kansas City, Missouri, says Valentine's Day, the second biggest card exchanging time of the year, has been emerging into something broader.

"I think Valentine's Day used to be thought of in more of a narrow sense by consumers and used to be what I term as an exclusive holiday, in that people used to think, 'well, I don't' have a love relationship in my life this Valentine's Day so I won't be buying any cards and I won't be receiving any cards,'" she says. "But when you broaden it, when you think about it as a day to really express affection and respect for all the people in your life, then anyone can give or receive ten or fifteen Valentines this year."

It is evident by looking at the cards in the Trover Book Shop on near the US Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. that what Ms. Novella says is true. In addition to cards expressing romantic love are cards wishing Happy Valentine's Day to Mom, or Dad or Grandma; the babysitter; for someone special; even a valentine from the dog. Joshua Anderson, a clerk in the Trover Shop, talks about the Valentine business this year.

"Right after February began it was very good," he says. "And then it tapered off for a few days and then it's been steadily increasing. And we suspect that it will continue to increase up to the 14. And probably even the 15 and 16 when people realize, 'Oops! I didn't get my wife (or whomever) anything and have to come running in and get something.'"

Valentine's Day is also one of the busiest times of year for florists, candy merchants, even diamond salesmen. Hotels have even gotten in on the act in recent years, by offering Valentine's Day specials, of reduced room rates, complimentary champagne and an extended check-out period.

One place which may be one of the most romantic places in Washington for couples in love is the bar inside Washington's historic Mayflower Hotel. Antique fixtures and overstuffed chairs fill the wood-paneled room, providing a kind of living room atmosphere. The tinkling of romantic music is provided by Dan Ruskin, who has been playing piano at the Mayflower for more than two decades.

"These days everybody's in love," he says. "You see them coming in, they put down their briefcases where they have been probably arguing over the budget and all of a sudden could be the music, it could be something in the air they start gazing deep into each other's eyes. And everything falls away. And it's kind of victory of hope over common sense, I think! And when they want a song, they write it down on one of these cocktail napkins and they bring it up." Dan Ruskin gets a lot of requests for My Funny Valentine, but also, this year, everybody wants, As Time Goes By.

"I'm more than an observer," says Dan Ruskin. "As the 'captain' of this piano bar, I may not be unlike a preacher who can say the magic words. You see lots and lots of people who come back every year on that one day when they met, and celebrate, or rekindle the magic that they had. I can name a dozen people who through the years have gotten married to this kind of romantic music and this kind of romantic ambiance that we have in here. And you look at them, you know their favorite songs. You know people who want to hear, It Had to Be You, you know people who want to hear, Some Enchanted Evening. This year also, Dan Ruskin has a lot of calls for What's New?