As much as I’d like to blame Hallmark, FTD, Whitman’s Sampler, Russell Stover, Brachs, and The Melting Pot for inventing Valentine’s Day to benefit the blood-sucking consumer industry, unfortunately I can’t. The fact is, February 14 has commemorated Saint Valentine, the patron saint of romantic love, since 269 A.D.
However, that day was not a happy one with chocolates and lace doilies. It was the time in history that Valentine, a holy priest, was arrested on orders from Roman Emperor “Claudius the Cruel” for refusing to deny Christ. He was sentenced to death, imprisoned, beaten with clubs, and when that failed to kill him, beheaded on February 14.
Romantic, huh? Believe it or not, it gets worse.
A couple hundred years later, in 496 AD, Pope Gelasius wanted to put an end to an ancient pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia, celebrated annually on February 15th in Rome, involving a brutal matchmaking lottery, the colors red (blood) and white (milk), and drunken naked men whipping women with strips of sacrificed goat skin. Understandably, the Pope wasn’t jiggy with Lupercalia, so he banned it, and declared the Feast of Saint Valentine an acceptable Christian substitute.
Although there was no real evidence connecting St. Valentine to the patronage of romantic love, myths and legends cropped up over time. One story was that Valentine was martyred because he was defying Claudius the Cruel’s order banning marriages, performing secret ceremonies for couples in love. Another tale told of imprisoned Valentine curing his jailor’s daughter of blindness, and having grown fond of her, writing her a letter signed, “From your Valentine.” But it wasn’t until Chaucer wrote poems inspired by mating birds in the fourteenth century that February 14th was finally able to shed its dark history and take on the sweet sappiness that it encompasses today.
Undoubtedly, today’s Valentine’s Day has questionable origins and costs consumers nearly $2 billion per year, but is there anything wrong with reserving one day a year for a little love and tenderness?
As a child, I clipped construction paper hearts, opened cards emblazoned with Ziggy and Snoopy, and crunched Necco Sweethearts stamped with “Cutie Pie” and “Be Mine,” imagining innocent love. During my desperate teen years, my best friend and I ordered each other Valentine’s Day $1 carnations at school, and signed them “from your secret admirer,” in case we didn’t receive any from boys. The only boy who ever bought me a flower was nicknamed “Goober,” but my dreams of romance persisted.
I was finally able to experience this bliss after meeting my Navy husband in 1992. There is nothing quite like true love, and in the early years, we spent hours picking out cards for each other, covering every square millimeter with hand-written words professing how doggone happy we were to have found our soul mates.
In the decades that followed, we tried to fulfill Valentine’s Day’s expectations of us. Some years, we succeeded, like the year we were stationed in Germany and went on a Valentine’s Day wine tasting trip in France. But other times, Francis would race home from work, stopping at the 7-Eleven for a lousy card that he signed hastily in the car, only to find me in our kitchen, frantically trying to feed the kids while folding laundry and helping our daughter study for a chemistry test. We’d exchange a quick kiss and our hastily scribbled cards with still-wet glue. He’d rush to change out of his military uniform, and I’d spritz on perfume to hide the scent of tater tots. We’d dole out the requisite bedtime threats to the kids, climb into our dirty minivan, and fight traffic to make our reservation. At the restaurant, we’d make our best effort at romance, ordering wine, holding hands, sharing dessert. But thanks to middle-aged fluctuations in blood sugar, we’d start yawning before the clock struck nine.
Our "hurry-up-and-be-romantic-before-I-fall-asleep" Valentine’s Day routine wasn’t what the Pope had in mind back in the fifth century, but sometimes, it was the best we could muster. Besides, we learned that even the most tortured schedule can squeeze in a little time for tenderness.