Celebrating Romance Never Gets Old
Please forgive me if my cynicism goes too far, but whenever I run into something like Valentine’s Day my first thought is “gee, those candy makers-flower sellers-restaurants-card makers sure know how to promote themselves.” I know, it’s still a nice excuse to romance your significant other, but really, doesn’t it feel sort of mandatory sometimes, like it’s about the marketing more than the feelings?
Well, I was wrong! I figured I’d browse the web a bit and discover that Valentine’s Day was invented by Hallmark a few decades ago, and puncture the purity pretty easily. The truth is that although the details are murky, as things almost 1,800 years old tend to be, there is a long history of celebrating Valentine’s Day or more accurately, Saint Valentine’s Day.
Several sources outline the history about the same way. The Catholic Church recognizes three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One of these was a priest—or Bishop—who lived in Rome about 270 AD, who was executed by the Emperor Claudius II reportedly on February 14, and this was the Saint Valentine most often associated with the holiday.
The stories behind the martyrdom are where the murk arises. In one story, Valentine defies the Roman Emperor to help young soldiers marry even though they were forbidden to do so because unmarried men fought harder (more frustrated?). In another, he helped Christians escape Roman prisons and in the process was befriended by a young woman to whom he wrote “from your Valentine.” The consistency in the story is that Valentine represented young love and was executed for it (an ultimate version of “tough love”).
Most accounts agree that Saint Valentine’s Day was first celebrated in about 496 AD when Pope Gelasius created a feast day to compete with a surviving Roman festival called Lupercalis, which was normally celebrated on February 15. So, February 14 got a competitive advantage, being a day earlier. So maybe that thing about how Valentine was executed on February 14 isn’t really true? Or maybe both are? Or maybe it doesn’t matter.
Feast days were popular because everyone likes feasts, and Valentine does have a really upbeat message about love. Some believe that early Romans exchanged written greetings with people they fancied, called “Valentines” but it is certainly true that by the middle ages Saint Valentine’s Day was widely associated with love. In England, lovers were exchanging gifts and cards by the 18th century and the practice spread to America.
In fact, Valentine’s Day cards began to be published in America in the 1840s, with heart-dominated themes we see to this day. It’s estimated that 25% of all the cards sent every year are Valentine’s.
So there you go. It is not just a marketing gimmick although it’s a pretty big commercial success all the same. No need to get myself all worked up about that, though. I’m going to use the excuse to have a special time with someone I love.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
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