Today is Valentine's Day. But does it really commemorate love and romance…or just provide merchants a way to guilt us into buying their cards, chocolates, flowers, and countless overpriced gifts?
According to legend, Valentine’s Day takes it name from St. Valentine, a mysterious figure thought to have been martyred in Rome during the third century. It seems Emperor Claudius II wanted a big army and figured single men made better soldiers than men with wives and families. To keep his pool of potential warrior volunteers from being distracted, the emperor outlawed marriage. Naturally, young men of matrimonial intent found the decree both vexing and unjust.
A local priest named Valentine concurred and continued to perform marriages in secret, thereby defying the emperor. Claudius found out, tossed Valentine in prison, and ordered that the insubordinate priest be put to death.
One version of the tale even has the imprisoned Valentine himself sending out the first love letter which later gave impetus to the holiday’s name. The letter went to a young maiden, possibly the daughter of the jailer, who’d been visiting Valentine during his confinement. The incarcerated priest had fallen in love. He signed the letter, “From your Valentine.”
The phrase stuck. Or so the story goes…
At any rate, the unfortunate Valentine was supposedly beheaded on February 14, in 269 A.D. Or perhaps that’s the date of his burial—again depending upon who’s telling the tale.
Whether or not any of this actually occurred is long beyond the realms of historical documentation. In fact, the Catholic Church has three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.
It is true that in 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius declared February 14 would honor St. Valentine as the patron saint of lovers. It’s also a fact that Pope Gregory XVI gave an Irish Priest named Father John Spratt the purported bones of St. Valentine during a visit to Rome in 1935. Remains which can be viewed every Valentine’s Day at the Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, Ireland.
However, the bulk of the chronicle is likely pure drivel. Moreover, there are alternatives. The first centers around at least two festivals of ancient Rome.
In the early days, Romans designated February 14 as a holiday to honor Juno, queen of gods and goddesses. Romans also knew Juno as the goddess of women and marriage. One of the aspects of Juno was Februta, associated with mating and fertility, and which may or may not be an etymological root of the month’s name. More important, perhaps, was that the following day, February 15, marked the beginning of the Feast of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a rowdy fertility festival some claim was based on glorifying the legendary wolf—or lupa—which suckled Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders, in a cave on Palatine Hill. There also may be a derivative connection with Lupercalia and the Greek god Pan.
The pertinent fact is that on Lupercalia Eve, teenage girls would write their names on bits of parchment and place the slips in an urn. Unmarried young men would then draw a name from the container and the girl would become his companion for the remainder of the year.
Many scholars suspect this is where the real exchange of valentines originated—though they weren’t yet called valentines. Centuries later, the early Christian Church, appalled by the concepts of this pagan rite of passage, tried to switch things around a bit—first by banning the name drawing, second by renaming the day to honor a saint.
Enter St. Valentine and his namesake holiday. Exit the Lupercalian lottery in it’s original earthy form. Roman men still desired Roman women, of course. They were willing to refer to the date as Valentine’s Day. But they loathed the idea of entirely losing what had heretofore been an ideal scenario for match-making. So the old practice was modified to a more decorous exchange of notes expressing admiration. And as the centuries progressed, the young men and women of other countries found the methodology equally appealing, and lustily adopted the procedure.
Nowadays, I suspect any red-blooded American male who wishes to do Valentine’s Day up right had better come calling with more than a paltry hand-written card.
There’s still another appealing twist to the Valentine’s Day opus which concerns the odd notion that February 14 marked the beginning of the mating season for birds. This idea seems to have been fairly widespread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, though exactly how it originated remains unclear. Many birds do begin to congregate in flocks around this time of the year. And large migratory flights are often witnessed. Some researchers think the belief can be traced to the courtship flights of crows, which often takes place throughout much of Europe around the middle of February.
There’s additionally the venerable tradition regarding the first bird a woman sees flying overhead on Valentine’s Day. If the bird’s a robin, she’ll marry a sailor. A sparrow indicates a future mate who’s poor. But if she sees a goldfinch, her prospective husband will be rich.
The belief that February 14 somehow marked the beginning of the avian mating season also seemed to coincide with many early-European traditions which saw mid-February as the rightful start of spring.And spring, as even those prosaic Middle-Agers could have told you, is unequivocally the season for kicking off a romance.
So there's what I know of Valentine's Day. And my take? Personally, I really don't care whether any of the stories are true…I believe in love, romance, and the power of chocolate. Happy Valentine's Day!