Valentine’s Day: What’s Our Relationship Status
Plastic red heart. Sugary cards. Too-sweet chocolate. Slightly wilting flowers. All the making for a classic modern Valentine’s Day. In the Jewish community, though, it’s a little more complicated. Most of us grew up hearing about how it was a Christian holiday (re: Saint Valentine) and thus we are totally forbidden to take part.
As we got older though, it became more apparent that this day is the epitome of a “Hallmark Holiday” (a Hall-iday, if you will) that exists largely to get innocent love-sick gals and guys to shell out some hard earned money on overpriced teddy bears and candy in order to prove their love to their significant other. As this because omes the rising association with this “day of love,” what really is the harm in buying some dyed roses and telling your sweetheart you love them? Is this day really as blasphemous as we have been taught to believe? And even if it’s history is not our own, does that mean we can’t appreciate it for what it is today?
Contrary to popular belief, the history of Valentine’s Day is one that is actually shrouded in a mist of mythology and confusion. Though a St. Valentine did exist, and the day’s name is attributed to such a man, who he was and the details of his story are both historically pretty shady. There are two tales related to St. Valentines, but historians disagree on if they were really two different people and who some aspects of each story should be attributed to since their stories have a suspicious amount of overlap. Along with this, Valentine’s Day can also be traced to the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, as well as to a poem from the Middle Ages by Geoffrey Chaucer. Confusing, isn’t it?
Let’s start by clarifying the story you have probably already heard; the late, great, ever so romantic St. Valentine(s). The two men who this holiday have been attributed to have such shockingly similar stories that many historians actually hypothesize they were the same person, though the name was fairly common at the time.
Valentine #1’s story goes as follows: He was a priest in ancient Rome where it was outlawed for young men to marry because Claudius II, the emperor at the time, believed men with wives and families make soldiers that just weren’t as good as their single counterparts. This priest rebelled by illegally marrying numerous couples during this time and was eventually captured and decapitated on, you guessed it, Feb. 14. Before he lost his head though, it said that he healed his blind captor’s daughter, arguably wooing her and/or converting her whole family to Catholicism in the process. It is said that he wrote the jailor’s daughter a letter which he signed with “from your Valentine.”
St. Valentine #2’s story is largely similar, though a bit less romantic. He was the bishop of Terni who also illegally married couples at a time that it was outlawed, and was killed — and effectively martyred — for this act, on the same day, also in the third century, but with a few years difference. Regardless, there is very little credibility for either of theses stories being origin story of this pretty pink holiday.
Taking a step back, Valentine’s Day also has roots in Lupercalia, a Roman harvest festival in which a dog and goat would be sacrificed, a whip would be make from their skins and priests and men would go through the streets flailing them about. Many female bystanders would deliberately try to receive such a hit because they believed it would increase fertility
Along with this, women would write their names on clay pieces and insert them into a jug. Men would then come and pick out a name and that pair were set to match up for the duration of the festival, leading to many marriages.
Some say that this was transformed into the celebration of Valentine’s Day in the fifth century when the Catholic Church tried to gear the festival away from the polytheism around the Lupercalia by creating this holiday of love on a saint’s celebrated day.
Bruce Forbes, a professor of religious studies in Iowa’s Morningside College, says though, that there is a single tie between the two holidays — a picture of two men with the aforementioned whips — and that Lupercalia had very little romantic symbolism.
He argues that most of the fanfare of Valentine’s Day as we know it comes from a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer. In the late 1300s Chaucer wrote, “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate,” in a poem titled “Parliament of Fowls,” which has been hypothesized to be about King Henry II’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia.
This association with birds’ mating season is why birds are a common visual theme on Valentine’s Day. It was this poem about yearning and forbidden love that also led, over the next few hundred years, to the writing of many love poems known as “valentines.”
Now this history is well and good, both clarifying and confusing a lot of the conceptions that exist around Valentine’s Day, but where does that leave the Jewish relationship with this day? It is not clearly associated with Christianity or a Roman festival but that is its major association. However, it is still known as a day commemorating those distinctly polytheistic holidays and is named after a saint. So where does that leave us?
Do we disregard the history and accept it as a commercial holiday that’s just around to make us buy overpriced candy? Do we have to embrace its religious associations? Do we declare it a day simply for telling those you care about that you love them? Can any of these things exist in a vacuum?
Though Valentine’s Day may be none of what we have been led to believe it is, it is, at the same time, all of it. Tied into this day of paper hearts and lace trim are the lives and deaths of at least two Catholics martyrs, the memory of an ancient celebration that would today be viewed as scandalous to say the least, the wedding for a king and his forbidden love and an ancient bird mating season. We cannot pretend that when we wish someone a “Happy Valentine’s Day!” it exist solely in its own time or own reality. As with all things, it must be embraced with its history, as indistinct as it may be.
It is really for each man or woman to decide for themselves what this day is. Whether it is a memory of ancient traditions and stories or simply a commercial opportunity to say I love you is a choice that lies in your hands as it is your perspective.
A day to acknowledge and appreciate those you love — such as Mother’s and Father’s Day — has its values and virtues. But by celebrating on this day specifically, as opposed to a day that has personal significance — like an anniversary — you must at the very least acknowledge that there is a history that goes with it, whether or not that is the reason why you are doing it. There is a history behind this single day and, like any other moment of significance, it would be wrong to ignore the context that led us here.
Photo Caption: Chocolate
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons