Monday, February 14, 2011

You Have St. Valentine to Thank for This

Happy Valentine’s Day! Did you know that this day has its roots in the legend of an early Christian leader? In fact, two Valentines are mentioned in the early martyrologies as having feast days in their honor on February 14. One was a Roman priest and the other a bishop of Interamna. Both appear to have been buried along the Flaminian Way, so it’s quite possible, as many speculate, that these two were the same man.

According to tradition, Valentine ministered during the reign of Emperor Claudius II in the third century. He was imprisoned, beaten, and beheaded on February 14, c. 270. As a friend of mine posted on Facebook today, they don’t tell you that on the Valentine cards. And why would they? What’s more romantic: a red heart on a card or a bloody head in a basket?

So, with all that blood and gore, how did Valentine get associated with a day of love and romance? According to the legend, Valentine undercut an edict of Emperor Claudius. The emperor wanted to recruit more soldiers for his army, so he tried to weaken family ties by forbidding marriage. But Valentine ignored the order and secretly married couples in the underground church. Once the government got wind of these activities, Valentine was arrested and tossed in the slammer. This part of the tradition is probably true.

The next part sounds a little fishy to me. Apparently, while in jail Valentine became friends with the jailer’s daughter, and being bored out of his mind as he languished in a dank dungeon, he amused himself by cutting shapes in paper and writing notes to her. His last note arrived on the morning of his death and ended with the words, “Your Valentine.” (It’s a nice story, but it just doesn’t ring true to me. There's wasn't an Office Depot on every corner, you know, and I don't think Roman guards would be supplying sharp objects to their prisoners.)

Anyway, by 496, February 14 was named in Valentine’s honor. Christianity was now a “legal” religion in the empire and many pagan festivals were baptized and christianized. Valentine’s Day christianized the pagan festival of Lupercalia, which was a celebration of love and fertility in which young men put the names of girls in a box, drew them out, and celebrated lovemaking. Valentine’s Day sort of cleaned that up and encouraged more innocent expressions of affection like notes and gifts.

So there you have it. That's the rest of the story concerning Valentine’s Day—that annual celebration of romantic love. I think it’s safe to say that women like Valentine’s Day a lot more than men do. Women tend to be a little better at romantic expressions than men are. And some men are just plain pathetic when it comes to this kind of thing. I’ve even known guys who broke up with their girlfriends before Valentine’s Day so they wouldn’t have to make a fuss and spend a lot of money on the big day, only to try to hook back up with them a week or two later. Real smooth, guys.

And as if that’s not bad enough, I know husbands who, day in and day out, don't treat their wives much better than that. But since breaking up a marriage is much more complicated than breaking up a courtship, husbands are kind of stuck. And if a husband doesn’t do something for his wife on Valentine’s Day, well, what’s that saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn”? So at the very least, Valentine’s Day serves as motivation for the lazy, inattentive husband to do something nice for his wife: buy her a card, send her some flowers, give her a gift, wine and dine her for a change. I guess it’s a good thing to have a day to motivate a husband to express his love for his wife. And I suppose most wives would say it’s better than nothing. But it seems to me that if it takes a day on a calendar to make a husband act like he loves his wife, then that marriage is adrift in ways a Hallmark valentine, a dozen roses, and a candlelight dinner won’t fix.

(Sources for this post: Dictionary of Christian Biography, Michael Walsh, ed., and On This Day in Christian History by Robert Morgan.)

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