What was all that Valentine nonsense all about anyway?

photo courtesy pexels.com

I despise the Hallmark holidays. You know the ones.  They are the pointless and contrived days each year that are designed to force us to veer from the daily slog and take a moment and tell your mom or dad or spouse that you love them.

What a nightmare!

Ok, maybe “despise” is too harsh a word. And yes, even after my wife and I agreed to celebrate the 14th on the 16th, I did get some roses and chocolates on the way home anyway. But that’s not the point.  I’m not a joiner.  I will not be controlled by a greeting card company and the United Sisterhood or Brotherhood of Floral Stylists.

Having cleared all that up, I am a little concerned that St. Valentine actually does have some influence around here. It was like I was hypnotized when I stopped off at “Watts Blooming,” my local florist on Mass Avenue on the way home.  The patron saint of romance had invaded my soul and led me there and forced me to buy $50 worth of goodies on a day I already had agreed to postpone.

Maybe it’s because St. Valentine actually is legit. February 14 is no “Sweetest Day.” That’s just capitalism’s attempt to rip off the original. This Valentine fellow, or fellows, have some history that is at least interesting.

History.com almost never disappoints.

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine. But the name was popular in Ancient Rome and there are stories of at least 50 saints by that name there. The most popular legends of Valentine appear to refer to two different men, whose stories are strikingly similar. Both were imprisoned around the third century. One was a priest, the other a bishop. Both performed secret weddings. The priest version of the legend featured him healing his jailor’s blind daughter, which led to that entire family converting to Christianity. This sealed his fate and forced his February 14 beheading, an execution date he shares with the other legend.

The priest sent a note to the healed daughter right before he was martyred and signed it “Your Valentine.”

Enough about that. Historians don’t seem to put a lot of stock into these accounts which seem to just be lore that evolved more than is actually verifiable.  More commonly, the famous poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, gets the modern credit of at least getting the ball rolling toward the Valentine’s Day of today.

In the late 1300’s, Chaucer wrote the poem “Parliament of Fowls.” The line“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate” is what many credit as starting the modern tradition. Chaucer and other writers of the time began creating tales of love between knights and noble ladies who faced obstacles to happily-ever-after endings. These trends led to the writing of poems by men to the targets of their affections. Poems which became known as “valentines.”

All of this started at the end of the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the Renaissance, the cultural, artistic, political and economic rebirth of Europe.

Thanks to Tina Turner’s hit song, today we often get to ask “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” I will take some historical liberty here and proclaim that the celebration of Valentine’s Day led modern culture out of the dark ages. I’m sure that’s a stretch, but judging by the entertaining kitchen counter research I did this week, I’m confident there is an actual historian out there somewhere who likely makes this connection somehow.

At a minimum, Chaucer was certainly a big deal as evidenced by our familiarity with him 650 years later.

Valentine’s Day is different than the Hallmark holidays. Sort of, I guess. Maybe it’s just older. Or maybe Geoffrey Chaucer found an innovative way to impress the ladies of which the heathens around him without culture and chivalry had never tried.

There is additional debate about how the day landed on February 14. Scholars argue that Chaucer was referring to a day in May and a love story that had nothing to do with fourth century beheadings.  However, the familiarity with the older legend and more importantly, the need to add a little spice to the otherwise dark and dreary month of February prevailed. I’m thankful for that.

Groundhog’s Day and President’s Day aside, I’m glad an otherwise depressing stretch of winter days can be broken up with one that encourages us to celebrate the love we have. Or to take a healthy shot at the love we want. Without the beheadings, of course.

 

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Michael Leppert

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