February 14, 2007
Kiss & Tell
The Mysterious History of St. Valentine
St. Valentine's Day is for martyrs. No kidding. Belief in true love can cause untold suffering to its faithful zealots. Yet millions of dollars are spent each year on cards, flowers, jewelry and chocolate to send out messages of love in honor of this holiday named after a mysterious saint. How much do we really know about the origin of this day we all either anticipate or dread depending on the status of our own romantic faith?
Here's a little Valentine's Day quiz.
Which of the following is true?
a) St. Valentine is not only the patron saint of love but of epilepsy.
b) In ancient Rome the holiday was celebrated by young men slapping passersby with a strip of goatskin.
c) The lifespan of those tiny candy hearts with little sayings is five years.
d) The Catholic Church dropped St. Valentine's Day from their official calendar.
Well, they're all strange but true.
The holiday originated as a fertility ritual in ancient Rome known as Lupercalia. Each year on February 15 two male youths clad in animal skin would run around the city and slap passersby with strips of goatskin. Like their distant relatives in Connecticut in the 1970s, the boys of the city engaged in a sort of key party where the names of all the girls were put into an urn and each guy would draw the name of the gal who would be his sexual companion for the next year.
Well, Pope Gelasius I would have none of this. He switched it so that young boys and girls would pull the names of saints and have to emulate them for the year instead. You can see why Christianity had a hard time getting a foothold.
A certain St. Valentine was a faithful disciple of the new religion and got into trouble after Claudius II outlawed marriage because he felt it hindered men's commitment to go to war. St. Valentine refused to honor the decree and still joined young lovers in Christian matrimony. This is one version of why he was jailed and ultimately beheaded, on February 14. His great compassion for not only the lovelorn but the sick arose from his own suffering from violent fits, so along with being the patron saint of lovers and bee keepers (for who knows why) he also is known as the patron saint of epilepsy.
There is a story that while he was in jail he cured the jailer's daughter of blindness as "saints are not expected to rest in peace, they're supposed to keep busy," according to catholic.org. He sent her a last note which was signed, "From your Valentine," thus authorizing Hallmark to make its fortune.
A few years later there was another persecuted member of the faith, a certain bishop of Terni, who was also beheaded for his Christian beliefs on February 14th.
Because the information on these supposed saints is so sketchy, and the holiday became so corrupted by materialistic gain (hello, can you say Christmas?) — not to mention the goal of nookie for its participants — the Church formally dropped St. Valentine's Day from the official calendar of Catholic Feasts in 1969. Apparently the irony of choosing that year was lost on them.
Instead, the official saints celebrated on February 14th are Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, two Greek brothers who became missionaries. They are the patron saints of "helping those in dangerous places" which sounds a lot like love to me. Perhaps instead of roses and chocolates we should be exchanging olive branches and feta cheese.
So whatever your faith or lack thereof I still want to wish you a happy CyrilMethodius Day blessed with benevolent love.
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