There is a buzz about Valentine’s Day that just does not sit right with me these days. The commercialization of holidays has taken a negative toll on the integrity of their significance. Capitalism has appropriated it for its own use. St Valentine’s Day is no different in this regard.
Read more about Valentine’s Day
The holiday, like Christmas, is steeped in Roman history. While February has now come to be characterized as the “month of love” in many parts of the world, there has been no compulsive empirical connection between the legends of St Valentine, Christianity and the second month of the Julio-Claudian calendar. Like most cultural practices of the latter-day, it may seem that the dates themselves were contrived rather recently in history.
Contrary to popular belief, there are four stories or legends around the day now referred to as Valentine’s Day and the Catholic Church recognizes at least three saints by that name. The first is the most peddled. It suggests that St Valentine was a Catholic priest in the reign of Roman emperor Claudius II.
At a time when the emperor decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and children and issued a decree to this effect outlawing marriage for younger men, Valentine recognizing the injustice in the decree, secretly performed marriage rites for young couples. When he was discovered, the emperor ordered his execution.
There is yet another story told of another Valentine of Terni (in Umbria) that was put to death by the same emperor. He was also put to death for trying to convert the emperor who was said to take a liking to him before now. The third legend suggests that Saint Valentine was a protector of early Roman Christians at a time of severe persecution.
The priest himself was caught and jailed and while in prison he fell for the jailor’s daughter to whom he wrote what many suggest was the first valentine. This he signed with the phrase “…from your Valentine”.
While the identity of our Valentine is very much in doubt, the origins of the holiday is not quite seen in that light. The feast of Lupercalia was a festival dedicated to the Roman god of fertility and agriculture and the legends of the brothers Remus and Romulus (founders of Rome) and held on ides of February (15th February).
The festival involved the killing of a goat (fertility) and dog (purification). The hide is then dipped in the blood and sprayed across the streets and fields on women and crops to purify and enhance fertility among women and crops alike.
Afterwards, the women put their names in a big urn and the young men go to pick an urn. They get matched to the names they pick for the rest of the year and usually the two get married. Lupercalia survived the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century AD but it was Pope Gelasius who officially outlawed the festival and declared the 14th of February as the day of Valentine.
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Much of what is now known and associated with Valentine is based on Renaissance folklore from France and England. The idea that mating season for birds began in February gave more credence to Valentine’s Day. Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the first writers to legitimize the term in his “Parliament of Foules”.
The earliest written valentine in existence today was written by Duke of Orleans to his wife at a time of his incarceration in London Tower during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.
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