Who was Valentine and why is February 14th called Valentine’s Day? Good question for all those who rush off to buy cards and chocolates in celebration of this annual day of ‘love and lovers.’ Stay tuned, I’ll try to unpack a few facts to enlighten you.
Valentine performed secret marriages
Valentine’s day is named Saint Valentine who was a Catholic priest in 3rd century Rome. At that time many Romans were converting to Christianity and Emperor Claudius ll was not happy about this, as he was a pagan. To retain control, Claudius wrote strict rules for citizens and soldiers. One such rule was that Roman soldiers could not marry. The priest Valentine secretly married the soldiers in a Christian ceremony.
That is how his name became associated with love, especially romantic love. Valentine did not totally get away with this, as Claudius did find out and imprisoned him. While in prison Valentine cared for other prisoners as best he could through prayer and small acts of kindness. Legend goes that one of the jailers had a blind daughter who Valentine prayed for. She regained her sight and maybe his miracle angered Claudius even more because he scheduled Valentine’s execution for 14 Feb 270 AD.
Legend goes that before he died Valentine left a message for the jailer’s daughter saying, ‘from your Valentine.’ This saying is the traditional one entered in a Valentine’s Day card to keep the sender or admirer anonymous, which for young women is half the fun. But this practice did not start until 200 years after Valentine’s death.
By then most of Rome was under Christian rule and paganism was on the wane. The Pope, Gelasius, at the time replaced a pagan agricultural festival with Saint Valentine’s feast day. In the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet promoted the day as one to express romantic love. This time in history was a time of courtly love where lovers were often secret. The idea of an anonymous sender therefore fitted well with the day all about love.
Tradition of love spreads
The tradition spread throughout Europe and senders would hand-fashion a beautiful card to honour their love’s beauty. Decorations of cupid cherubs, hearts, and red roses were the most common additions to the love message. These are still used on cards and single red roses are often sent with the card.
In a world that screams for more love and kindness we can’t be too hard on this tradition. Yes, I know today it also screams of commercialism, but most people tolerate it and find the custom sweet and harmless, especially if they are on the receiving end of the custom.
Around the 1800s, when more people could write and read and the postal service was underway, a variation of the sweet Valentine greetings came into being. These were the Vinegar Valentine cards. Shops sold them along with the sweeter version. The name sort of says it all, sour not sweet. Vinegar valentines were nasty anonymous messages to those unloved by the sender, or maybe a rejected lover. I guess they were equivalent to the modern day trolling on social media.
In those days the recipient, not the sender, had to pay for the postage. So imagine getting a snarky card and having to pay for the joy of it yourself! The Vinegar Valentines eventually died out as shopkeepers selling such cards were penalised, but I have a feeling there may still be a few vinegar Valentine messages delivered on sweet Valentine cards.
In recent times, in the Western World, the whole Valentine concept has been commercialized, just like Easter and Christmas. We can’t seem to help ourselves trying to make money out of everything!
A new variation of the day has emerged. It’s called Galentine’s Day. The Gal bit refers to gals. That’s right gals have banded together to reinvent the day as one where anybody can express friendship or be loved.
Single women, single mothers and other unpartnered individuals can send, and be sent Galentine’s cards, or meet for lunch or drinks. It is a way to appreciate and be appreciated, regardless of one’s loved status. A great idea. Go for it gals! It is usually celebrated the day before, on Feb 13, but what’s a difference of a day between friends?
Reception in other cultures
Other cultures refuse to be affected by this commercial love-fest day. Iran and Islamic cultures are definitely against it. After all, in Iran, it is even forbidden to dance or embrace someone of the opposite sex, unless married and in the privacy of the home. Saint Valentine has no chance there to spread his loving message.
In India, the authorities tried to turn lovers away from celebrating this day. They instituted instead a ‘Hug a Cow’ day in its place. Cows are sacred to Hindus and to harm one is a sin. Instead of men and women hugging each other or sending love messages, they are encouraged to hug a cow. Surprise, surprise, this has not gone down so well.
Hug a Cow Day
A flood, or more correctly a herd of cartoons, jokes and memes appeared online, depicting men trying to hug cows who didn’t welcome such advances. Then one commentator, said, ‘consent is important’. This is true, of course, and maybe even for cows. Animals have rights too! It seems the ‘Cow Hug Day ‘ was not a winner so India will have to tolerate the incursion of Western culture. Animal lovers still think it is a good idea, as they insist hugging animals is good for cows and people.
The message is ‘love one another,’ no matter the species. Be inclusive. This is needed in the Indian culture, which does not have a good record of kindness to women. There is a terrible rape crisis in some of the cities. Women are less respected than cows. Some men behave badly.
On a more positive note, let us celebrate love and friendship in all cultures. Saint Valentine’s Day could help do this despite being a commercialised version of the original sentiment.
So may a single red rose come your way with a loving message! It is a feel-good moment for the romantic ones amongst us. I like the custom. Saint Valentine’s Day is also my wedding anniversary, so doubly special. Red roses, dinner and wine for me. You might even decide to have an ‘UnValentine Day’. Why give chocolates and roses only on Feb 14th?
Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.