It is about this time of year when we begin to sense that spring is coming. We’ve forgotten July’s heat. Black oaks are still hanging on to a few remaining leaves. Most trees are stark and bare, and there’s little movement on the ground, save the plastic shopping bags that no one has had the heart to pluck from the brittle limbs. Ah, what a lovely time for Valentine’s Day.
I began to wonder whether the timing of the holiday was devised specifically for this heartless, cold, bare time of year or was simply the work of the Hallmark Company.
According to Wikimedia, Valentine’s Day was once a pagan festival named after two Christian martyrs named Valentine. In fact, there were so many religious martyrs named Valentine that, until 1969, the Catholic Church recognized 11 different Valentine’s Days. But these early Valentines were lost to history in the 19
69 revision of the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints.
Medieval legend holds that there was one Valentine who was persecuted as a Christian. When interrogated by Claudius II, the emperor was impressed by Valentine and tried to get him to convert to Roman paganism to save his life. Valentine refused, but before his execution he reportedly healed the blind daughter of his jailer.
Other Golden Legend lore describes a different Valentine’s story. When Claudius II ordered young men to remain single to grow his army (believing that married men didn’t make good soldiers), the priest Valentine performed secret marriage ceremonies for young men and their sweethearts. Claudius found out and threw Valentine in jail. On the eve of his execution, Valentine reportedly wrote his first “valentine” himself, either intended for a young girl, the healed emperor’s daughter, or both. The note read “From your Valentine.”
As for the date … back in that day, Romans celebrated Lupercalia, the ancient fertility rite February 13 through 15. Many believe that Valentine’s Feast Day on February 14th was the way to Christianize the pagan holiday. It was in the 1840s that Valentine’s Day was reinvented.
In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper were produced and sold by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts shortly after 1847. She had gotten her inspiration from an English Valentine she’d received. Since then, Valentine’s Day has been exploited by the diamond, flower, and chocolate industries to name just a few. The U.S. Greeting Card industry claims that, worldwide, one billion valentines are sent each year. As a joke, Valentine’s Day is also referred to as “Singles Awareness Day.”
Other countries celebrate love on other days. Finland’s “Friends Day” is for celebrating and remembering all of your friends, not only your close loved ones. Estonia has a similar celebration. In Slovenia, a proverb says that “St. Valentine brings the keys of roots,” so on February 14, plants and flowers start to grow. On Valentine’s Day, March 12, the first spring work in the vineyards and fields commences.
Many countries believe that Valentine’s Day marks the beginning of spring. I like this line of thinking. That out of this grey, icy landscape we can draw hope and, more than hope, have a hand in the creation of our individual harvests. That perhaps all of the martyred Valentines stood for something – their beliefs and their hope for the future. This is how I will celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. As a way to rebuild from scratch, as it were. To step into the fields and begin creating anew. I will also give thanks that I am not a religious martyr named Valentine living anywhere near Rome.
I prefer this approach to the emphasis our culture puts on mating and the celebration thereof. In South Korea, Black Day (April 14th) is traditionally the day that single people who did not send or receive romantic gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day get together and eat a special dish of noodles with black bean sauce … and commiserate with one another. I prefer to think that we each have our own paths. That some of us are monogamous, some not, some given to long-term relationships, and others not.
But we’re all free to love exactly as we wish. No need to commiserate because you’re not part of the “norm.” And so that is my Valentine’s wish to everyone: enjoy every bit of love you have in your life, and celebrate love wherever and whenever and with whomever you find it.