Rethinking Valentine’s Day

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”  ― William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well.

I’ve come to be wary of Valentine’s Day. I like the idea of giving – more accurately the idea of receiving chocolate on this day. I like flowers, but I appreciate them more when still growing in a garden. I don’t mind the cards, but frankly, I’d rather skip the cards and enjoy the shade of a tree that wasn’t cut down to make them. Somehow the tradition of basing this holiday on the tragic life of the legendary original Valentine  just seems wrong.

There are several St. Valentine’s for whom this annual shop-for-your-sweetheart-or-wish-you-had occasion is likely named. Valentine Number One was a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. He was executed on February 14, around the year 278 A.D.

No Time for Romance

Rome was engaged in a variety of bloody campaigns at the time. Emperor Claudius needed a large, strong army, but he ran into recruiting problems. Young men didn’t seem to understand the advantages of sacrificing their lives in his military campaigns, when they might stay  home, marry, and live to see children grow up. Not be deterred, Claudius solved this problem by banning marriage and engagement.

Enter Valentine Number One. He ignored the new decree and kept secretly marrying couples. Claudius found out and ordered Valentine arrested, beaten to death, and finally beheaded for good measure. According to legend, this Valentine left a note for his friend, the jailer’s daughter, which he signed, “From Your Valentine.” It’s a sweet legend, with no verifiable evidence to prove or disprove it.

History records three St. Valentines, all martyred on February 14: the note-leaving one; a bishop in modern Terni, Italy; and another in the Roman province of Africa. February 14 is a lethal day for people named “Valentine.”

Profiting from Romance

History is vague on how these executions of people named Valentine morphed into an annual prove-your-love holiday. One theory is that the February 14 date is close to the annual Feast of Lupercalia, an annual pagan festival of love. At these festivals young women put their names in a box and young men drew out a name. In the 5th Century Pope Gelasius put an end to the festival, setting aside February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day. Over time the date became the official day to exchange love messages, poems and simple gifts such as flowers according to an article by Elizabeth Hanes on  the History website.

Regardless of which historical Valentine is the inspiration for modern Valentine’s Day, it is now another well-established gift-giving occasion. This may boost the economy, but it leaves a trail of broken hearts for those for whom the love of their life is gone, whether by death or the decision to leave.  Or for those who for whatever reasons never parted up with a life-long partner in the first place.

Rethinking the Day

What might happen if instead of spending money on candy, flowers and cards, we used February 14 as a day to do random acts of kindness for strangers. Buy the coffee for next person in line; invite someone to jump ahead of us in line, or entertain a little child so a weary parent can finish handling business.

2 Comments

  1. Great column! Thanks for sharing the history of Valentine’s Day and for your suggestions on better ways to celebrate the day. I guess I should feel good about, rather than annoyed for, having let a truck go in front of me just a few minutes ago, with the truck then poking up a parking garage ramp for 11 floors at about 2 miles per hour. Happy Valentine’s Day!

  2. Though it’s so hard to do, patience, kindness and respect remain good qualities to put out there into the world. Happy Valentine’s Day to you.

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