Valentine’s is Here Again

A cranky Roman Emperor, a naughty priest and plush carnivorous animals… A history lesson for Valentine’s Day.

Now steady on my carbon-based compadres, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I’m going to launch into a tedious and tiresome tirade about Valentine’s Day and everything that’s wrong with it, how commercial it is, how it’s “made up” and all that drivel.

Well then you’ve fallen right into my trap Mister Bond, because I’m NOT going to do that. In fact, I’m going to DEFEND it.

I’m sorry to disappoint you my dearest reader, but… I like the concept of Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is simply a reminder to tell our significant other – our partner in crime, the person with whom you have chosen to share your time in this mad run around the sun – that our lives are enriched and blessed by their presence.

That seems innocent enough, right? Interestingly, history would tend to agree.

No one knows the precise origin of Valentine’s Day, but one account begins all the way back in the third century. The Roman Empire (known as “the Apple of ancient history” by historians who have been drinking copious amounts of beer) had been at war for years and its power was declining. This was due in part to El Nino and the failure of “self-riding horse” technology. Fewer and fewer young men were signing up for the army, and those who did often deserted. According to Emperor Claude II (son of Murray and Esther II), potential soldiers were more interested in women than in being slaughtered needlessly for the Empire. “It’s so hard to find good young men to be needlessly slaughtered these days,” Claude was said to have lamented. In an effort to solve the problem, “Cruel Claude,” as he was then nicknamed, decided to forbid weddings throughout the Empire, mainly because he hadn’t been invited to any.

However, a priest called Valentine decided to defy the law. In secret, he continued to perform weddings, and even encouraged young lovers to meet him so they could be blessed with the marriage Sacrament. But Claude II eventually heard about these activities and put Valentine in jail.

While in jail, the priest befriended the blind daughter of his prison guard. Sadly, Valentine was eventually sentenced to death. According to the legend, just before his execution on February, 14th 270 AD, he gave sight back to the blind girl, who immediately carved a selfie to commemorate the occasion. He also gave her a heart-shaped letter, which he signed, “From your Valentine <3” (This is believed to be the first known example of an emoji.) When the Roman Empire finally collapsed at the end of the 5th century – providing countless jobs for out of work documentary presenters – Valentine was declared a Saint by Pope Gelase I for his sacrifice in the defence of love. The rights to his story were purchased by 5th Century Fox and a movie of his life was planned, with Joe Pesci starring as the blind girl.

Whether this story is true or not, it encapsulates the real message behind Valentine’s Day: “Always invite the Emperor to your wedding.” No really, it’s that no matter what, love always prevails.

The idea of Valentine’s Day as a “romantic” holiday traces back to 15th century England, specifically the England of the always pithy (not to mention rather naughty) Geoffrey Chaucer. It was built entirely on the concept of courtly love, which was a kind of love normally found in court among lawyers (back then, lawyers were still considered carbon-based lifeforms.) The tradition of exchanging flowers and confectionary as a way to express love and affection began much later, sometime in the 18th century. (Pittsburgh, Tuesday, January 11, 1735 at 3:26 in the afternoon. It was raining.) During the 19th century, the practice of exchanging handwritten cards or “valentines” flourished, along with the practice of giving “teddy bears” as gifts. Back then the used real bears.

So what’s wrong with all this? Why do some people react with extreme – and I would argue almost comically ironic – vehemence at the mere mention of Valentine’s Day?

There are several arguments made against this time of La Saint-Valentin, as they say in essays far more French than this one.

Commercialism is one of the biggest – the proliferation of crimson heart-festooned detritus that seem to blanket every store starting around mid-January. While I can certainly see the point, I think it’s too easy an answer. Much like the whining that serenades us around Christmas time, we forget that commercialism – or the participation in it – is not forced on us. It’s an entirely voluntary act. We vote with our wallets, (certainly not with our brains as recent history has demonstrated) so if enough people stop purchasing a specific product, that product tends to disappear quite quickly. The idea that Valentine’s Day means we’re required to buy a plethora of materialistic symbols of affection is nothing more than a social construct in which we have chosen to participate.

Another popular argument says that relegating love to a lowly holiday “cheapens” it in some way. It’s an interesting argument, but I would submit that love – true, undying affection felt for another or even for oneself – is far stronger than that. Like commercialism, participation in a holiday tradition is an entirely voluntary act. Frankly, if your love for another can be “cheapened” somehow by a holiday, methinks there’s a bigger problem there.

The last, and possibly the most vociferous, argument comes from those who, for whatever reason, are partnerless. I am referring of course to singles. Some singles loudly decry the holiday as a painful reminder of what they’ve lost / not found, and the presence of so many happy couples publicly and gratuitously displaying their affection is like the proverbial twisting of the knife. I’m ashamed to admit I felt this way for some time.

What changed for me was realizing that my “issue” with Valentine’s Day had nothing to do with commercialism, cheapening relationships or being surrounded by couples in love like an artsy music video for an 80’s power ballad.

The problem, like so many things, was not in the idea, but in the execution. In fact, it’s an issue of volume. Let me explain.

If we are to judge by the “standard” Valentine’s Day presentation, it would look something like this:

  • A bouquet of flowers roughly the size of Belgium.
  • A heart shaped box of chocolates sufficient to make an average musk-ox diabetic (These should be from Belgium.) (The chocolates… not the musk ox.)
  • A romantic dinner / evening for two that costs as much as the Gross National Product of Paraguay.
  • A thoughtful Valentine card.
  • A plush carnivorous vertebrate of the class Mammalia such as a bear or the xenomorph from the film Alien.

Now your mileage may vary, but essentially there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those items. The problem is, we tend to go overboard, ending up with an almost Las Vegas level of absurd excess. In our desire to show those we love how much we care for them, we overstate our case with the extraneous. Consider an actor who wears so much makeup and costume accessories that it no longer matters who’s in there anymore. Like Marlon Brando playing Godzilla, the core, the point of the endeavour, has been buried. In the case of Valentine’s Day, love may not be cheapened, but it sure as hell is drowned out.

My suggestion (such as it is) is to present the person you love with the one thing that matters most in a relationship – you. If you have that romantic dinner, cook something rather than going to a fancy restaurant. Create a card with your own hand and your own words instead of buying one. Choose a single, perfect flower instead of half the greenhouse.

In the end dear reader, love doesn’t shout, it whispers in the dark – a voice only you and your partner can hear. Don’t drown it out.

I said that this was a defence of Valentine’s Day, and it is really. Because beneath all the decorations and trappings of the holiday, there is a single idea – the celebration of love, in whatever form that takes. In a time when simply turning on the news makes you regularly question the basic decency of humanity, I think it’s needed more than ever.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. If you’re fortunate to have someone in your life who you truly love, go to them right now. Tell them how you feel. It doesn’t need to be eloquent, poetic or carved into a heart shaped box. It just needs to be sincere.

And don’t forget to invite Claude.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *