Monday, February 14, 2011

St. Valentine's Day

Handing over a card today? You -- well, maybe Hallmark or American Greetings -- can thank woman named Esther A. Howland who produced one of the first commercial Valentines about 1840. Americans took to the celebration whole-heartedly. The lady sold over $5,000 worth in the first year, that during a time when the average workman might measure his daily earnings in pennies rather than dollars.

Makes you wonder who is St. Valentine and why do we choose his day to offer love tokens by destroying forests and bingeing on chocolate.

I was writing some feature stuff for a newspaper once and had to research it. I don't know how good a researcher I am, but I found three different St. Valentines, all of them martyred as Christianity spread throughout the world. One was a priest, another the Bishop of Terni (a small town near Rome), and the third a missionary to Africa.

It is the priest around whom the legend has grown. Supposedly he died at the order of the Emperor Claudius II on February 14, in the year 269 or 270.

Despite harsh treatment and then a chance at a reprieve (the offer of clemency if he would renounce Christianity and worship the Roman gods), Valentine held to his faith. Legend has it that only his jailer, and the jailer’s blind daughter, befriended him in his last days.

Before his execution, he’s said to have converted the jailer and his daughter to Christianity and to have restored her sight. The night before he went his death, he wrote the young woman a note and signed it, “From your Valentine.” The place of his martyrdom -- Rome’s Flaminian Gate -- is now known as the Gate of St. Valentine.

Who knows? I've never been to Rome. The newspaper was small, and I don't think they would have sprung for the airfare.

Like a lot of other stuff in western culture, the Church may have simply hijacked a celebration the Romans had for themselves -- the Feast of Lupercalis, a celebration of fertility, on February 15th. During the festival, unmarried young women would write love notes and deposit them in a large urn. The men would select a note from the urn and pay court to the woman who had written it.

We can also blame birds. It's a legend in France and England that birds began to choose their mates during the middle of the second month of the year. And that leads us back to the day the Church put Saint Valentine’s Day on the calendar.

From there, you can go to Chaucer, who wrote about the birds mating on this day, and then to Charles, Duke of Orleans, who legend says sent the first Valentine to his wife in France while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415.

The rich and famous, the aristocracy doubtless being the only ones who could read and write back then other than the priests, kept it to themselves apparently, at least until Howland found a way to make a buck off of the saint.

So now we've moved from a martyred Christian to aristocracy and prison correspondence, a fad that soon caught on amongst the lords and ladies of the royal courts. Saint Valentine’s Day became the occasion to honor one’s love with a note or a token of affection. Those who penned these missives took to addressing one another as “My Valentine.”

Another popular custom that flourishing during the same period were gatherings where young people of both sexes would meet on St. Valentine’s Eve. They would draw lots marked with the name of someone of the opposite sex, and so each young gentleman became the “Valentine” of a young lady and got a young lady for his “Valentine.”

Whether there was a keg tapped, I don't know.

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