Well, today is Valentine’s Day, a day when, according to Time, people in the United States will spend approximately $126.03 per person on candy, jewelry, flowers, lingerie, stuffed bears that exclaim “I looooooove you!” in tinny voices. I’m not great with math, but considering that there are over 3 million of us, that’s a lot of dough.
Today, I am laid up in bed with a very wicked stomach virus my personal valentine, who is pretty pitiful right now as well, gave me, and I thought that while I rested I would meditate the holiday. We all know what Valentine’s Day has become as evidenced by the first paragraph of this post, but, being the history lover I am, I find the history (or jumble of histories, really) of the holiday much more fascinating and romantic than the swirl of consumerism that consumes our country every mid February. Here, then, is the quick and dirty history of Valentine’s Day.
Like many holidays on our modern calendar, Valentine’s Day has pagan origins that extend beyond its Catholic ones. Each February 15, Roman’s would celebrate the festival of Lupercalia in honor of the god Faunus and Romulus and Remus. A goat would be sacrificed at the cave where the twins were believed to have been nursed by the wolf Lupa. The goat hide was then removed and cut into strips and dipped in the goat’s blood. Men would take the blood dipped strips around the city gently slapping women in order to ensure fertility for the coming year. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll recognize this ritual in the first act of Julius Caesar. After the run the young ladies of the city would toss their names into an urn and the young men would fetch them out. Whoever got your name was essentially your new boyfriend or girlfriend for the coming year. It saves time and fuss, I can kind of see the appeal.
As Christianity spread in the Roman empire new origins for the holiday emerged. Many believe the Catholic Church adopted the date for the old festival of Lupercalia for the Feast of Saint Valentine in order to further convert the Roman people to Catholicism. As far as Saint Valentine’s involvement in the story is concerned, there are two major versions of the story. At this point it is also important to note that the Church recognizes multiple St. Valentines. They were all martyred as well. Hey, we’re talking Romans and the Catholic Church here. I didn’t promise it wouldn’t get convoluted. Anyway, one story alleges that a priest named Valentine helped young men marry their sweethearts secretly under the reign of Claudius II who wanted his soldiers minds on vanquishing the foes of the Roman Empire and not on their honeys back home. Valentine was discovered and put to death.
The second story, and perhaps the lesser known of the two, is of a Valentine who helped Christians escape Roman persecution. He, surprise, surprise, was caught as well and locked up himself. Apparently he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and, as legend goes, sent her the first valentine in the form of a love letter signed “From your Valentine,” before he was also put to death. We know how much the Church loved to celebrate its martyrs with feasts back in the day so thus the Feast of St. Valentine was put in place to celebrate one or both of these guys.
Eventually this day of St. Valentine was moved to February 14th in the Middle Ages (because that’s apparently when scientific minds of the time believed birds started getting it on for the year). While some Medieval lovers chose to exchange tokens around this time, Valentine’s day did not become my widespread in it’s celebration until the seventeenth century. Europeans brought the holiday with them to the New World and there are reports of Valentine’s Day exchanges in the Americas dating to the 1700s. For those, like myself on occasion who bemoan the commercialism of the holiday, well, you have “the mother of the American Valentine,” Esther A. Howland to thank. She is the originator of the original mass-produced Valentine’s Day card. The daughter of a successful stationery store owner from Massachusetts began making her own gaudy, lacey, god awfully ornate versions of the English valentines (oh those Victorians) and pitched them to the American public with overwhelming success. The rest is history…
It’s pretty amazing to contemplate how the holiday has changed over the years. I’ve never been one much for celebrating it. I always looked on in disgust when I was in school at all of the flowers, candy boxes, balloons etc. that my fellow students received during the school day. It was an ostentatious display of over consumption, and to this day the Valentine’s Day aisles that appear pretty much right after the Christmas aisles are dismantled in major chain stores make me wish to vomit. I’ve also been part of that not-so-enthusiastic portion of the population that finds itself without valentines with which to celebrate the day. I know firsthand the desire to just get through the day without taking scissors to teddies’ necks or pins to balloons and wake up with the general haze of puppy love cleared from the air on February 15. However, looking back on the somewhat murky but really kind of romantic and sexy origins of the Day, I think I might have come to a civil truce with it. I think, when you truly love and care about your partner, there is nothing wrong with taking a day out of an otherwise overly jammed and distracted year to tell them and show them how much they mean to you. Yes, this should be done year round, but, let’s face it, sometimes we can get caught up in the insanity of our twenty-first century lifestyles, and we forget to do so. While I prefer the more handmade, thoughtful, original, and private approach, some people really feel that the only way to do it properly is the opposite. That’s cool, if that’s your thing. We all just need to remember, it’s not about what’s in the box, card, or bouquet, but instead it’s about why you’re giving that to your special someone.
Now that I’ve given my treatise on Valentine’s Day, I will finally shut up, and leave you all with something that I feel is essential for a perfect celebration of the day, good love poetry. This one is by my favorite poet Carl Sandburg and is coincidentally the one I’m exchanging with my valentine this year.
“I Love You” by Carl Sandburg
I love you for what you are,
but I love you yet more for what
you are going to be.
I love you not so much for your realities
as for your ideals.
I pray for your desires that they may be great,
rather than for your satisfactions,
which may be so hazardously little.
A satisfied flower is one whose petals are about to fall.
The most beautiful rose is one hardly more than a bud
Where in the pangs and ecstasies of desire
are working for a larger and finer growth.
Not always shall you be what you are now.
You are going forward toward something great.
I am on the way with you and
therefore I love you.
I wish love and happiness to you all today and for the days to come.