Faith Factor | Reckoning with Valentine’s murky history
February 13, 2014
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — I have a hard time saying "Hallmark Holiday" without a not-small degree of spite.
Really: holidays created for the purpose of selling more cards and gee-haws? Good on 'em for capitalistic efforts, but don't expect my support.
Valentine's Day strikes me as being a victim of an increasingly violent hijacking.
All the cards, candies, wine, chocolates, dinners, lingerie, contrived gestures at romance seem to me superficialities undermining any true meaning. Heck, when I was teaching in Thailand, a thoroughly Buddhist country, the sidewalk outside my school was filled with giant stuffed animals and heart-shaped balloons Valentine's week.
And there's quite an irony underlying this attitude.
Tradition has it that St. Valentine lived in the Third Century in Rome. At the time, Claudius II, called Gothicus or the Cruel depending on the source, forbid young men from marrying for fear it would decrease their ferocity in battle.
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Valentine, a devout Christian, was converting and marrying young, pagan, Roman men, who then became useless to the army. Claudius had him locked up, and his jailor challenged him to prove the superiority of his faith by curing his daughter's blindness, which Valentine did.
Somehow, the jailor connected Claudius and Valentine, and Claudius took a liking to him. Right up until he tried to convert Claudius, thereby undermining his godhead status. So he ordered Valentine killed.
First he was clubbed. It didn't work.
Then he was stoned, which also lacked fatality.
Finally he was beheaded, leaving behind a note for the jailor's daughter signed, "from your Valentine."
In one tradition.
But the modern Catholic church doesn't recognize a St. Valentine.
It acknowledges the potential of three different men from different times and places mentioned in early martyrologies.
And one Orthodox tradition has another version with a feast in June, and another holds his feast in late July.
Here's the irony: Valentine's Day is entirely contrived, from the earliest traditions.
It's no Christmas, Passover, Easter, Ramadan, even Thanksgiving or July Fourth. It's made up from the get-go.
Maybe the celebration was adopted to supplant the fertility holiday celebrated in pagan Rome in mid February: once the Christians took over, a generation or two after the latest reported death of Valentine, sacrificing goats and dogs and running naked through the streets sprinkling blood from their flayed hides was frowned upon, so maybe they took the saint known for marriage, thus fertility, and assigned his celebration to the pagans' fertility celebration.
Or maybe it was when Chaucer linked the tradition of birds choosing mates in the second week of the second month with St. Valentine's martyrdom on Feb. 14.
Regardless, it spawned the tradition of giving Valentines as early as the 1400s in England, which migrated across the pond in the 1700s.
Sending cards turned into an industry that built to a frenzy with the photograph postcard at the turn of the last century, which gave Joyce Clyde Hall a foothold into the industry of card making, thence Hallmark and "Hallmark Holidays."
So it's all a construct based on murky suppositions, says my cynical academic self.
But a voice from childhood checks that: I could miss her birthday, Christmas, Easter, anything else, but forgetting a card and call on Grandparents' Day was a mortal blow to my grandmother. And there was the time I gave a teacher fudge on Teachers' Day and she choked up, and the time I gave the department's secretary spur of the moment flowers and she burst into tears
Maybe they lack the religious or historical precedents, but these celebrations do not lack meaning to individuals who value them.
So as we enter this season of hollow, fabricated holidays, by all means approach them from an enlightened perspective.
But spread that enlightenment to the people who find value in them.
You would never shout "Santa's not real and the Tooth Fairy is a lie!" to a group of kidlets on a Christmas ski trip, so why would you rob the validation, significance, and support from those who find meaning where you don't?
If it's important, give the flowers, cards, chocolates, ornamental stapler or super SLB model sprayer.
And if you mean it, it will mean much more than the effort it took to give.
Russell Richardson, MM, MFA, St. Nick's (Tahoe City) tuba player and publicist, visit http://www.stnicksepiscopal.org. St. Nicholas Episcopal Church and is free and open to all. Location, 855 West Lake Blvd, Tahoe City.
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