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 extract as much cash from our wallets as possible, it’s simply not true. The observance is a shout-out to Saint Valentine, the patron saint of romantic love, circa 269 A.D.
Strangely, the last thing that comes to mind when examining the history is chocolates and squishy sentiments. 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 Feb. 14.
Romantic, huh? Believe it or not, it gets worse.
A couple hundred years later, Pope Gelasius wanted to put an end to an ancient pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia, celebrated annually on Feb. 15 in Rome. It was a brutal matchmaking lottery festooned with the colors red (blood) and white (milk). Drunk, naked men whipped women with strips of sacrificed goat skin because it supposedly revved up their wombs. Understandably, the Pope wasn’t jiggy with the scene, so he banned it and declared the Feast of Saint Valentine an acceptable Christian substitute.
By the way, if you’re wondering how St. Valentine got all of the “romantic love” street cred, there’s a couple of unsubstantiated theories. One claim is that he was martyred because he defied Claudius’s order banning marriages, performing secret ceremonies on the sly. Another tale suggests that he cured his jailor’s daughter of blindness and, having grown fond of her, wrote a letter to the girl signed, “From your Valentine.”
Suffice to say, the celebration of Saint Valentine has lived on, receiving huge boosts in popularity by 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote poems inspired by mating birds and late 16th century William Shakespeare who enthralled theater-goers with romantic works like “Romeo and Juliet.”
Fast forward to the 21st century, a time when most of us would agree there’s nothing wrong with a day devoted to love and tenderness. I sappily remember those years of my childhood when I clipped construction paper hearts, opened cards emblazoned with Ziggy and Snoopy, and crunched Necco Sweetheart candies stamped with “Cutie Pie” and “Be Mine.”
During my desperate teen years, my best friend and I ordered $1 carnations for each other at school and signed the card “from your secret admirer,” in case we didn’t receive any such expressions of admiration from actual boys. There was a year when I did receive a flower from a boy nicknamed “Goober” … swoon … I soon (immediately) moved on and my dreams of romance persisted.
I experienced true, head-over-heels love when I met my Navy husband in 1992. In those early years, we spent hours picking out cards for each other, covering every square millimeter with hand-written scribbles professing how doggone happy we were to have found our soul mates.
In the decades that followed, we tried to maintain the Valentine’s Day expectations. Some years we succeeded, like the time we were stationed in Germany and went on a wine tasting trip in France. Conversely, we experienced a lot of romantic strikeouts – the times when Francis would race home from work, stopping at the 7-Eleven for a generic card that he signed hastily in the car.
He’d walk in to find me in the kitchen frantically juggling food for the kids, laundry folding 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. With last-minute instructions to the babysitter, we’d 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 and sharing dessert. Inevitably, we found ourselves succumbing to middle-aged fluctuations in blood sugar and were yawning before the clock struck nine.
I’m sure 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 5th century, but sometimes, it was the best we could muster. We learned that even the most tortured schedule can squeeze in a little time for tenderness. If you’re in the same boat with your significant other, remember that point, and leave out all that other stuff about fertility festivals and beheading.