Whence came the sighs and daydreams of red roses and chocolates? Whose bright idea were the candlelit dinners and heart cutouts? Was the trendsetter a man named Valentine?
As part of whining over my perennially unattached state, I tend to indulge in wallowing and grouching this time of year. To counteract this tendency I thought I’d look into the man behind the red paper hearts. He’s got a day named after him, a day so many look forward to, and yet hardly anybody talks about him at all. He’s like a wallflower in his own party! So I thought I’d pay him a little attention this year, and bring him back to the celebration.
Valentine’s Day is the memorial of Saint Valentine–or more correctly, saints named Valentine. There are at least three of them, all martyrs for the faith, all commemorated on February 14. But only one of them is said to have been put to death on this day: Valentinus, a priest in Rome, imprisoned for helping Christians escape persecution. Legend has it that he was also detained for performing marriage rites for couples, because the then-Emperor Claudius II had the notion that wedded bliss was detrimental to the quality of his military, and so prohibited it. After continuous refusals to renounce his faith in order to avoid execution, Valentine was beheaded on February 14 around the year 270.
Though he was said to be a proponent and defender of marital love, and he himself was a model of passion and love–albeit another kind–and fidelity unto death, just like all the other Valentines, such acts of love and sacrifice are still a far cry from jewelry, candy and lace-trimmed confessions of affection.
It turns out that the man behind the mating rituals associated with this day wasn’t named Valentine at all, but Geoffrey Chaucer. Yes, he of Canterbury Tales fame. The association of St. Valentine with gooey sentimental love was first recorded in a couple of lines from one of his poems, The Parliament of Birds and it goes:
For this was Saint Valentine’s Day
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.
This started the ball rolling on Valentine wooing, which has evolved and escalated to the exuberant excess in the Valentine’s day practices today.
So here’s to all you Saints Valentines, especially you from Rome! May we who live now love as heartily as we enjoy the truffles and trimmings.