Oh, Valentine’s Day. What a strangely weird and wonderful day.
February 14th can elicit emotions of love, desire and excitement.
It can also be a day of promoting the singularities, the individuals and the angst of several million people, decrying the evils of Hallmarkian holidays.
But what do we know about the origins of this holiday?
Sure, Hallmark executives have several houses in Aruba because of this “holiday,” but where did we get this day of love?
From a martyr. That’s touching.
Valentine’s Day is most accurately attributed to a particular saint who was martyred.
The exact saint is a bit harder to narrow down.
Doing some research, three blips on the radar pop up:
1) Valentine of Rome
2) Valentine of Terni
3) Some random Valentine who might have died in Africa (but nothing else is known about him).
Most of this is irrelevant, however, as by the 14th century, the distinction between Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni was probably lost. In their original context, there were no romantic elements associated with the Valentines.
We don’t actually know how he (they?) died. Just that they were martyrs.
For the sake of subject-verb agreement, I’ll only talk about one Valentine from here on out.
Valentine has some fun legends associated with his death, though.
The best one is this:
“The Early Medieval acta of either Saint Valentine were expounded briefly in Legenda Aurea. According to that version, St. Valentine was persecuted as a Christian and interrogated by Roman Emperor Claudius II in person. Claudius was impressed by Valentine and had a discussion with him, attempting to get him to convert to Roman paganism in order to save his life. Valentine refused and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity instead. Because of this, he was executed. Before his execution, he is reported to have performed a miracle by healing the blind daughter of his jailer.”
What a guy. He tried to convert the emperor to Christianity and BOOM! Instamartyr.
He didn’t even get a church named after him.
It gets better: in 496 AD, Pope Gelasius I establishes the day on the General Roman Calendar as “Valentine’s Day,” a day of remembrance for the martyred saint. But then in 1969 Pope Paul VI removes it from the calendar.
Why? “Though the memorial of Saint Valentine is ancient, it is left to particular calendars, since, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.”
Enter Geoffrey Chaucer.
If it weren’t for him, Valentine’s Day would have remained a feast on the Roman calendar, with no hearts or chocolate or candy or cards or perfume or anything like that.
Chaucer was a poet (and he know’d it). His first work to feature a reference to “Valentine” was Parlement of Foules (1382):
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
Stirring, isn’t it? If you can read it. (Here’s the translation for those who can’t quite make sense of it: “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”)
Here’s the thing that floors me – readers have made uninformed assumptions that “Volantynys day” refers to February 14th. However, if you actually read the text, this is probably untrue. What birds do you know find their mates in mid-February?
“Henry Ansgar Kelly has pointed out that Chaucer could be referring to May 2, the celebration in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa, an early bishop of Genoa who died around AD 307.” (Kelly, Henry Ansgar, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine [Brill Academic Publishers, 1997])
By the High Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries) and even as late as the 1700s, Valentine’s Day had become part of the “courtly love” tradition, picked up by such names as John Donne and William Shakespeare (in Hamlet when Ophelia says “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day…”).
From there, we catapult to late 19th century where we see the advent of handwritten “valentines” which were given to people as presents and mementos of love.
And then there’s Hallmark. I think you can pick it up from there.
Why did I tell you all this?
Am I trying to ruin your day of love and affection?
No. Well, maybe.
Wait. No. My wife is probably reading this so I officially have to say “No.”
I tell you this because this holiday is based on a guy who was martyred for some unknown reason, canonized by the Roman Catholic Church into a saint, and then picked up by (with somewhat wrongful assumption) by readers of Chaucer, who then paved the way for the 15th century courtly love tradition, which then gave way to modern holidays, consumerism and mass chocolate production.
So, Happy Valentine’s Day!