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A Brief History of Valentine's Day

Posted by hughrandle@gmail.com on February 14, 2014 at 8:10 PM


Originally written February 8, 2012.... Next week, we celebrate one of our oldest traditions. Most people won’t realize it or in doing so will call it a “Hallmark Holiday” They will buy the obligatory flowers, the candy or in some cases the jewelry. They will fill restaurants in pairs, looking for the perfect “dinner for two” special. In reality, the day should be taken much more seriously. It is a tradition older than Christmas, older than Mother or Fathers Day, and older than Thanksgiving. It is a joyous, celebratory holiday, however, as we dig into the origins of Valentines Day, we find that the day is dedicated to the death of a saint, a saint, who was martyred because of his belief in love and his belief that man should be free to marry. First of all, let me start by saying that the challenge of researching St. Valentines and who he was, whether he existed and how he died, has been a challenging one. There have been at least three St. Valentines throughout history, at least two who have been martyred, but after going to Deborah A Levine’s excellent book, Love Miscellany, and examining the Catholic churches’ website, the best history I can give is this. A Catholic priest in Rome was assisting the young men in Rome against the rules of King Claudius II. In short, Claudius II felt that the best soldiers the Roman army could ask for were bachelors, who did not yearn to return to their wives. So he declared it illegal for his soldiers to marry. Valentine, as holy priest, went against Claudius II and married young Romans in secret. Valentine’s belief in love and marriage was so strong, that in spite of promises of mercy in return of a promise to stop the marriages, he eventually was apprehended and beaten and then finally killed on February 14th in the year 269 or 270. There are people who have come to believe that a Saint Valentine did not exist at all. However, evidence refutes this as an actual church built by Pope Julius I in 337 to 350 A.D. has been unearthed just outside of Rome. Additionally, St. Valentines skull is displayed every February 14th at The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Other churches in Dublin, Ireland and near Rome also claim to have remnants of St. Valentine’s history from that official unearthing of Pope Julius’ church. As early as 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius began celebrating a feast of St. Valentine in the Catholic Church. Ok...so if you are with me so far, we have a martyred Catholic priest, who after repeated warnings to stop marrying young Roman soldiers off against the decrees of King Julius II, is beaten and then beheaded on February 14th in the year 269 or 270. So this “Hallmark Holiday” this day that reluctant Romeos throughout the ages have hesitated to celebrate, truly do celebrate a romantic soul who believed in love even to the point of death. There is so much that historians have not figured out about St. Valentines, but one thing that particularly interested me was that this priest, Valentine, who died on February 14th, was born on April 16th- my birthday. I have always wondered why I was so intrigued with romance and why I have always felt it was my lifes mission to spread more love and beauty in the world. Well, maybe this is it....St. Valentine, born on the same day of the year as me. I will prefer a dinner out on the 14th to a beheading, however, I am so intrigued by anyone throughout history, who is willing to die for their beliefs. Whether it be Jesus and eleven of his twelve disciples, William Wallace, or Nathan Hale, the principle of dying for what you believe in is something we should all study. Now, I am not completely finished with the story of Valentines Day. As with most holiday traditions, many different factors entered into the equation to bring the day to its current incarnation. For example, the pagan ritual of Lupercalia, which was practiced by Romans before the birth of Christ, enters into the picture as it falls on February 15th. On the eve of the ritual, goats (for fertility) and dogs ( for purity) were sacrificed. The blood stained hides of the goats (februa- which is how February is named incidently) were whipped at women, who actually welcomed this as it was meant to make childbirth easier if they were already pregnant and conception easier if they were not. A second and less verifible part of the Lupercalia ritual was the lottery, where all of the young womens names were but into a container and all of the eligible men in the town drew names and spent the next year with their partner. Many of these lottery matches turned into marriage and helped build the Valentines Day legend. In 496, when Pope Gelasius made the holiday an official Catholic feast, the lottery was changed to a drawing of a particular saints name out of a container, who the bearer was to then develop the virtue of throughout the year. In 1382-83, English author Geoffrey Chaucer, noted most for his Canterbury Tales, wrote a 700 line poem called “Parlement of Foules” (Parliament of Fowls) , where St. Valentines day is discussed as a day for lovers, using doves, which mate for life, as the comparison. “ For this was on seynt Volantynys day, whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” “ For this was on Saint Valentines Day. When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” In medieval France and England it was believed that birds began their mating rituals in mid-February. It is during this period that we have the first use in literature of the term “lovebirds” Next, we turn to someone who we may be surprised is connected with any mention of love- King Henry VIII. Yes, he of killed off wives and divorces and the quest for the male heir , we can credit King Henry VIII for officially naming Valentines Day as a day for lovers in 1537. Over the next several decades, lovers began to find creative ways to express their love through trinkets and gifts of the heart. In the late 1700's men would present to a woman they were courting a pair of white gloves, which was a form of marriage proposal. If the woman wore the gloves publicly on Easter, his proposal was accepted. However, if she instead wore a pair of mittens, not only was his proposal denied, but he should give up all hope for a change in answer from her. Mark Twain, on writing about Valentines Day said, “ When you fish for love, bait with your heart, not with your brain.” So gentlemen, this week as you prepare for Valentines Day and what you are going to do for the woman you love, follow Twain’s advice, let your heart decide and not your brain. For over a millenium this has been a celebration of love and the power of the heart over the brain. Set a bar, not just for this year, but for your future Valentines Days with your partner. As John Lennon and Paul McCartney said, “ When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now Will you still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine, If I’ve been out til quarter to three, would you lock the door? Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”


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