Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the Origin of Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day—a day both anticipated by lovers and dreaded by singles—is fast approaching, so this week, I spent some time researching the history behind Valentine’s Day. I wondered, Where did it all begin? In a foggy, distant memory, I recalled learning about a saint after whom this now massively commercialized day was named after. That was all I could remember, so I looked further.

What did I find out about St. Valentine? Well, most sites agree that there is no specific, definitive answer to who St. Valentine really was. There are both historical people and events, many embellished into folklore, which could have contributed to the recognition of Valentine’s Day across the world. Apparently, different people have different opinions about how Valentine’s Day became such a popular day to express love to one another. Here are some of the many and diverse stories I came across:

Some Say…

There was a Roman priest named Valentine, who, in approximately 296 A.D., under the reign of Claudius II, was martyred on February 14 for refusing to deny Christ. He was beaten and then beheaded.

Some other sources say that Valentine was actually martyred because he either secretly married or secretly helped Christians, which at that time was considered a crime. Other sources say that while Claudius II was in power, he strove to build up and maintain a strong army. He banned new marriages—as a way to help him build his army—because he found that many married men were unwilling to join his army as they were too attached to their wives and families. Valentine married young men and women in secret, which was in direct violation of the emperor’s marriage ban. He was caught, martyred (on February 14) and made a saint because of his great work.

Yet other sources focus on a tale about Valentine being imprisoned. Some say he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, which inextricably linked “Valentine” and “love” with February 14. Others say he healed the girl, who was both blind and deaf, making him a saint, thus commemorating February 14th as Valentine’s Day.   

There are also records of a bishop in Terni named Valentine, who was martyred in 197 A.D., also on February 14. Why? Who knows?

St. Valentine of Terni

Early martyrologies contain records of a third martyr named Valentine, buried on February 14 in Africa.

(Apparently Valentine was a common name back then.)

Either way, the somewhat elusive “Valentine” was declared a saint in 500 A.D. by Pope Gelasius and therefore Valentine’s death was remembered on the 14th of February each year, making it an official saint’s day in the Roman Catholic calendar.

Some sites trace Valentine’s Day back to the old festival of Lupercalia, which had taken place in Rome on February 15 each year, for about 800 years. Young men would draw names of young women, in a lottery-style event. Each man would have his selected woman as a sexual companion for a year. Pope Gelasius was disgusted by this ritual, so in 498 A.D. he changed the patron of the feast from the god Lupercus to the martyr Valentine, and changed the lottery so that men and women would draw saints’ names instead. Each young person then had to emulate his/her selected saint for the year. However, apparently young men and women would still write notes to each other and use this festival to hook up.

Jumping ahead to the 14th and 15th century, we find the “earliest” recorded reference to Valentine’s Day and arguably the first Valentine note:

1.       Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382) includes this line, which is thought to be an early association with Valentine’s Day:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

(For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.) Apparently, during the Middle Ages, the French and English believed that birds started looking for their mate around February 14th each year. How conveniently fitting.

2.       The earliest recorded Valentine note, according to some sources, was a love letter written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, while he was in prison:

“Wilt thou be mine? Dear love, reply
Sweetly consent, or else deny;
Whisper softly, none shall know,
Wilt thou be mine, love? Aye or no?"

Isn't that sweet?

The Evolution of Valentine’s Day

As history progressed, Valentine’s Day has become more recognized and more commercialized. When I was talking to Joel about the history behind Valentine’s Day, he just said that Hallmark created it.

By 1969, the Roman Catholics decided to remove St. Valentine’s Day from the official Roman Catholic calendar of commemorative events. Some say Valentine’s Day was removed because the day was less and less recognized as a saint’s day and more and more celebrated as a “love” day involving the giving of chocolate, flowers, cards and heart-shaped balloons. Others say Valentine’s story lacked sufficient historical evidence to justify its position in the calendar.

Of all the legend and lore that surrounds Valentine’s Day (and I didn’t even get into mythology or Cupid’s tale), not one story has enough historical proof to have legitimately warranted the huge, widespread recognition of February 14 as Valentine’s Day in the way it is celebrated today (and has been celebrated for hundreds of years). The conflicting stories and folklore that somehow evolved into today’s Valentine’s Day is convoluted at best.

After reading all of these stories, I’ve concluded that people, throughout the ages, are just people who love to love. We write songs about love. We listen to songs about love. We watch movies about love. We read books about love. We talk about love with our friends, families, spouses and significant others. The biggest pieces of gossip at school are date stories, breakup stories, who likes whom and who kissed whom. Love is a big deal. “It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all,” right? Maybe we just needed an excuse to celebrate crushes, infatuation, love, romance, dating, mating and having a significant other on whom to dote. Valentine’s Day is a convenient vehicle by which to celebrate love, collectively with millions of other people around the world. (It’s also a great way for Hallmark to make a killing.)

People didn’t need a specific, significant love event reinforced with adequate proof for a reason to celebrate Valentine’s Day. These little threads of stories are enough. 


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