Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love. How controversial can THAT be? It wasn’t invented by Hallmark, as many jaded folks feel about the whole affair. It does support the florist industry, not a bad thing, small flower shops could not thrive without it. And along with Halloween it probably keeps the candy industry afloat too. (There might be some controversy there, but as always, buy local and buy healthy.)
The most accepted version of how Valentine’s Day came into being is the story of a priest named Valentine. In the third century Emperor Claudius II decided single men were better soldiers then married men so he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine felt this was grossly unfair and, defying Claudius, performed marriages in secret. He was caught and sentenced to death. As the story goes, he either struck up a friendship or fell in love with (depending on the version you read) the jailer’s young daughter and wrote his young friend a letter before being executed…. often referred to as the first Valentine.
There’s not a lot of hard evidence for this story, likely passed down originally by oral tradition, but having all the elements of a good story – rebellion in the name of love against an evil emperor, it has stuck.
Before the martyrdom of Valentine the feast of Lupercalia was celebrated from February 13 to 15. “Men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain…young women would actually line up for the men to hit them. They believed this would make them fertile.” This strange ritual was followed by a matchmaking lottery. Young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be coupled up for the duration of the festival, or longer. (1)
These two stories, blended together and soften over the centuries, thanks to Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the poets of the world, became today’s Valentine’s Day. Losing the early pagan mating rituals, and rarely seen as a Christian celebration, it became a day for children to hand out funny Valentines to friends and couples to find time to acknowledge and express their love for one another with flowers, candy, dinner out or whatever. Not a bad thing!
Growing up, our family celebrated all the traditional American holidays. Somehow Mom found time between working full-time, raising three kids, and fulfilling the responsibilities of a typical housewife in the 50s and 60s, to do a little decorating, make a special dinner and, always, a special dessert for every holiday from Halloween to St. Patrick’s Day and beyond. Christmas was a grander affair and Easter involved the extra tasks of buying Easter outfits and putting together Easter baskets.
Maybe because it was low-keyed, and definitely a family affair, I’ve always liked Valentine’s Day and never thought of it as a holiday exclusively for couples. My brothers must have been influenced in the same way, because over the years I occasional receive Valentines from each of them, and I’m guessing not too many men send Valentines to their sisters! (Aren’t I lucky!)
As a single adult I pretty much did what mom did…decorate a little, make a special dinner, send Valentines to friends and family. I still do, most years. Mike greatly appreciates it all and it remains a low-keyed time to simply celebrate love, both within our marriage and beyond.
But this celebration of love has deeper meaning to me now than it did growing up. Call it Divine Love, Universal Love, Cosmic Love, or just Love with a capital “L”, it is a force greater than the lust of the early Roman couples or the amorous feelings of a condemned priest. It is the love felt when a mother looks into the face of her new born, when a friend holds the hand of a dying friend, or a spouse tenderly cares for their mate who does not recognize them any more. It is the warmth one feels with a long-time friend, or a spouse, when you share a moment of laughter at some ‘in joke’ and realize how deep and how lasting your relationship is. It is the compassion of a police officer who buys a homeless person a pair of shoes, or a child who saves her allowance and raises money to help people in a country he or she has never been to. This love is beyond romantic love. It is unconditional, made up of compassion, empathy, appreciation, respect. It is inclusive, accepting another person because you see beyond their actions, or their beliefs. Ignoring the differences that make them “other”, you see them with an understanding heart, not a critical mind. And you care about them.
This love has seemingly gone missing when you read the headlines. But it is alive and well in small compassionate acts of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, as well as every day deeds of kindness. It is alive when people take action from their hearts. It is in the stories that don’t make the headlines.
We can, and need to, nurture it and celebrate this love everyday. It’s what the world needs now, more than ever.
To celebrate it is perhaps an act of rebellion against the hatred being taught and glorified. This celebration of universal love for all, I think, would make the rebellious priest Valentine, who lost his life to help other’s celebrate their love, very happy!
Happy Valentines Day!
(1) National Public Radio story on the origins of Valentine’s Day