Will you be my Valentine?

Every February, across the world, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this day by ‘carrying our hearts on our sleeves’? The history of Valentine’s Day — and its patron saint — is shrouded in mystery. But we do know that February has long been a month of romance, both in the East and the West.

The St. Valentine, after whom this day is named, was most likely a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. So he was imprisoned by Claudius and put to death, on February 14, 270 A.D.

While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, others claim that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to ‘christianize’ celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia festival.

In ancient Rome, February was the official beginning of spring and was considered a time for purification. Houses were ritually cleansed . Lupercalia, which began at the ides of February, February 15, was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to Juno, the goddess of marriage, as well as to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.

To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or luperca. The priests would then sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. The boys then sliced the goat’s hide into strips, dipped them in the sacrificial blood and took to the streets, gently slapping both women and fields of crops with them. Roman women welcomed this, as it was believed that the strips would make them more fertile. Later in the day, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would then each choose a name out of the urn and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage. This custom lasted until the 1700s when people decided their beloveds should be chosen by sight, and not by luck.

St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. In 496 A.D., February 14, was dedicated to St. Valentine by Pope Gelasius. Although it was removed from the Church’s calendar in 1969 by Pope Paul VI, the religious meaning, coupled with Valentine’s Day’s roots in Roman paganism, have allowed it to continue as a day of celebration for everyone.

St. Valentine is said to have sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself. While in prison, he is believed to have fallen in love with the jailor’s blind daughter, — a young girl who visited him during his confinement. It is believed that he was responsible for giving back her eyesight. Before his execution he sent her a letter, which he signed, “ from your Valentine” – an expression that is still in use today.

The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. It is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London.

Most of the items linked to Valentine’s Day came from old-fashioned customs that used lace handkerchiefs and floral bouquets to pass on non-verbal messages.

Giving flowers dates back to the 1700s when Charles II of Sweden introduced the Persian custom of “the language of flowers” to Europe. Books about the meanings of particular flowers were published, and entire conversations could be carried out using only a bouquet of flowers. The red rose, which is also the favourite flower of Venus, the goddess of love, has become the traditional Valentine’s Day flower.

Centuries ago, a woman would drop her handkerchief in front of the man she liked. This was a form of encouragement to him, and if he picked it up for her an introduction could be made. Lace has always been part of women’s handkerchiefs, and it has since been linked to romance.

Cupid is the winged child whose arrows are shot into the hearts of potential lovers. In both Greek and Roman mythology Cupid is the son of the goddess of love and is always part of celebration of love and lovers.

The heart is linked to Valentine’s Day because it was once considered (and still is) the source of all human emotions.

Lovebirds are often part of Valentine’s Day. Found in Africa, these brightly coloured birds sit very close together with their mates, earning them their name. Doves are also part of the tradition. They are symbols of love and loyalty because they mate for life.

A love knot is a symbol of everlasting love, because its winding loops have no beginnings or ends. In times past, they were made of ribbon or drawn on paper to prove one’s undying love.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages , but written Valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The first commercial Valentine’s Day greeting cards produced in the U.S. were created in the 1840s by Esther A. Howland. Howland, known as the Mother of the Valentine, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colourful pictures known as “scrap”.

Today Valentine’s Day is a popular observance around the world and has been increasing in popularity in India too, in recent years. Despite complaints from fanatic religious groups that it is a western phenomenon, destroying Indian culture, Valentine’s Day has now become a widely recognized and celebrated day with the Indian youth.

Similar is the situation in some other countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, and Pakistan , where the hardliners forbid any romantic relationship, dubbing it un-Islamic, unless the couple is married. Nevertheless, the occasional heart-shaped gift, stuffed animals with love messages and flowers sneak their way in the shops, and the Day is becoming increasingly popular among young people.

We must remember that Valentine’s Day is not a day of debauchery, as made out by religious fanatics. It is a day that celebrates love and romance, and the only ritual performed is when a guy sends flowers or candy to his sweetheart. We should not let it become a consumer driven holiday, which fills the coffers of the rich. Let it remain a celebration of love and hope, as it was meant to be.

In a world full of hate and discord, let the true meaning of Valentine’s Day be embraced by all cultures. Valentine’s Day should be the ultimate ecumenical observation. What religion or culture could possibly be against love?

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS), has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India’s prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)