It is Valentine’s Day, 2007, and Suzanne Eikenberry, director of Montpelier Alive, is walking from her home in Montpelier, Vermont to the Statehouse so she can arrive in time for a live, 6 a.m. radio interview. And she isn’t so much walking as she is trudging, because it has been snowing all night long and there is at least a foot and a half of snow on the ground and more continuing to fall.
But in the midst of all that Narnia-like whiteness, Eikenberry is struck instead by a wondrous swath of crimson that cuts through the monochromatic blizzard like a searchlight: A row of red hearts has been plastered to the windows of the Main Street businesses.
When she arrives at the Statehouse, she sees even larger hearts planted in the shoveled snow on the steps and wrapped around the great columns that mark the Statehouse’s front entrance.
Eikenberry moved to Montpelier from Washington, D.C., the year before and this was her first Valentine’s Day in the Vermont capital — and her first exposure to the Phantom Valentine.
Every year since 2002, someone (or some people) descends upon the downtown in the small hours of Valentine’s Day morning so that when the sun rises there will be thousands of red hearts festooning the city streets. “As I walked to the radio interview, I remember thinking, how does he do it? How did he get the hearts posted during the biggest blizzard in years?” Eikenberry recalls.
Claire Benedict, who with her husband owns the Bear Pond and Rivendell bookshops, saw the phantom’s handiwork for the first time in 2003 and was instantly smitten. She and her family had just moved to Montpelier from Natick, Mass. “It’s such a dreary season and the hearts are wonderful and cheerful. Everyone loves them,” she says. “You’d have to be Scrooge not to love it. It’s uplifting. It’s why you live in a small city.” Her store now sells a Phantom Valentine jigsaw puzzle — an image of a giant banner of the heart the phantom somehow managed to drape from the Kellogg-Hubbard Library one year
Both Eikenberry and Benedict insist they are not the phantom Valentine (or one of the phantom’s cohorts) and that they have absolutely no idea who the phantom is. Everybody in Montpelier I spoke to about the phantom was quite clear: Even if they knew the identity, it would take the rack or the iron maiden to get them to reveal it.
Some people didn’t even like me asking them if they knew. Montpelier writer David Dobbs, author of “Reef Madness” and “The Northern Forest,” says adamantly, “I wouldn’t reveal my suspicions because part of the magic comes from not knowing who it is. There’s also a sort of understood collusion among those who suspect they know not to reveal clues or suspicions or evidence. The phantom has been doing it a while now, yet the thrill of finding the town papered in valentines each Valentine’s Day remains as strong as ever. In some ways, it’s even sweeter, precisely because we don’t know who it is: A sort of magic and mystery remain.”
And if people do know? “We’ve agreed as a town not to reveal anything,” Dobbs says. “It’s as if we’re protecting Santa Claus and our own J.D. Salinger at the same time.”
In return, the phantom shares his love for the city by turning the downtown into one massive Valentine. “You’re in the doldrums of winter,” Eikenberry observes, “and then people get up and go out and they see these hearts everywhere. For a lot of people, Valentine’s Day can be lonely and sad — but not here. We have a romance between a city and a phantom.”
This is precisely the sort of altruistic angel we could all use in our lives: A phantom far more likely to string paper hearts from a chandelier than send one crashing to a city stage.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 14, 2010.)