A History of Valentine’s Day

Well, Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us again and, as a writer for a paper whose title attests to a certain sense of pride in its cynicism, I come to ye readers once more to poo-poo on another holiday. Predictably enough, the grinchy writer has a problem with Valentine’s Day. But I confess — I cannot be so bold as to label this commentary another one of my rambling condemnations, as such a declaration would suggest to a reader some degree of conviction. My “problem” with Valentine’s Day is not so much a problem as it is a sheer lack of understanding. Thus, I offer a small shred of history this week – and of course, a few passing observations, in hopes that my research might cast a new light for some on the strange tangle of traditions known as Valentine’s Day. Many of us, in questioning the history of Valentine’s Day, have no doubt been confronted with the muddled myth of St. Valentine, who as we all know was the patron saint of … what exactly? The only consensus that historians seem to be able to reach is that all of the three possible candidates for the “real” St. Valentine were martyrs. Though these Valentines had more experience with sticks, stonings and pagan monarchs than candy, romance and love notes, the point is that no one can say definitively who the real St. Valentine was. He remains as mysterious as the ingredients in those little candy hearts, but without the chalky aftertaste. St. Valentine himself aside, it does seem probable that the celebration of some sort of mid-February festival originated as a result of the Roman Catholics trying to one-up the pagans. The pagan festival of Luperci took place annually from Feb. 13 to the 15. Live animal sacrifices were standard, followed by the men and boys of the village tearing the flesh of the sacrificed animals into strips and running through the streets whipping the women who waited alongside the roads. This was, obviously, a sign of fertility and, though a bit old-fashioned, something to be desired back then. The church however, saw this as decidedly un-Christian, and the popularity of the festival only added insult to injury. Thus, they picked a name of a dead priest out of a hat and scheduled a holiday smack-dab in the middle of Luperci in an attempt to contest the pagans. Stonings, martyrs, fertility whippings – if Valentine’s Day was born of anything, it was blood. Perhaps it’s these underlying themes of jealousy, bloodshed and animal sacrifice that account for my distaste for the holiday. Though these themes may have become less obvious over the years, there has always appeared to be a terrible sense of urgency surrounding the holiday. I am all for telling those you love that you love them, but given the violent origin of St. Valentine’s Day and its monstrous manifestation in contemporary consumer culture, it seems to me that true love and affection are the last things concerned in this darkly drawn romantic picture. So how did we get to where we are today? I think, perhaps, the answer lies within the notion of love itself. Cultural conceptions of romance tell us that love is something that, in the face of hard fact, can take precedence over it despite its irrationalities. It seems the reasoning powers of the mind are to be ignored in the presence of the rose-eyed seductress, Love. By this train of thought, it seems only logical that the most romantic day of the year would be underscored by a history of blood, paganism and violence. Or at least, it’s certainly romantic to think so.