Thursday, February 14, 2013

How Things Have Changed Since 278 A.D.

While I was in the supermarket yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice the excessive consumerism that saturates Valentine’s Day. (Of course, that has become true with every holiday, but that’s fodder for another post.) The florist section of the supermarket seemed to vomit a flood of red and pink flowers, plants, fake flowers, stuffed animals, boxes of candy, and balloons across the front of the store. The “festive treats” aisle was crammed with shiny red and pink candy boxes, more balloons, and every variation on the teddy bear theme. (?) I did scan the greeting card aisle for a nice simple card for D, but the pickings were slim (at least for our tastes), unless I wanted to show my love with a gag card, a card that played tasteless music, or made fun of sex, or was over-the-top lace-flowers-pink-with-a-long-poem-that-someone-else-wrote.

Of course it all was tasteless, but I was also saddened by the enormous waste of resources – paper, food, plants, plastic, etc. – that could have been used for more meaningful purposes. And it’s all marketed so heavily (and for so long, starting right after Christmas!), that people somehow have the idea that buying all this stuff is the right, or only, way to mark the day.

How things have changed since February 14, 278 A.D., the date on which Valentine, a Roman priest, was executed.

The reigning emperor of Rome, Claudius II (known as “Claudius the Cruel”), was engaged in many military campaigns. These bloody wars were very unpopular, and few Roman men volunteered for military service. Claudius, believing that men were reluctant to join the army because of their attachments to lovers, wives, home, and family, forbade all marriages and engagements. The priest Valentine, in sympathy with young lovers, secretly performed many marriages. He was eventually discovered, and was arrested and forced to appear before the Prefect of Rome. Valentine was condemned to be beaten to death with clubs, and then to be beheaded. The execution took place on February 14, around the year 270. It has been said that while in jail awaiting execution, Valentine befriended the jailer’s daughter, and left her a farewell note signed “From your Valentine.” (How likely is that?)

How did Valentine’s name become associated with romantic love? The date of his death, February 14, may have been conflated with the Roman Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love held on February 15. At this festival, couples were formed when men drew women’s names from a box; I suppose that could be seen as a forerunner of the modern “secret” Valentine card. The Feast of Lupercalia was ended in 496 A.D. by decree of Pope Gelasius, who also declared that February 14 would henceforth be celebrated as St Valentine's Day.

Well, that’s just one version of one story. There were other men named Valentine who were martyrs of the Christian church. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under date of 14 February. One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), and these two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city. In William of Malmesbury's time what was known to the ancients as the Flaminian Gate of Rome and is now the Porta del Popolo, was called the Gate of St. Valentine. The name seems to have been taken from a small church dedicated to the saint which was in the immediate neighborhood. Of both these St. Valentines some sort of Acta are preserved but they are of relatively late date and of no historical value. Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.”
In any case, February 14 has become the day on which people who love each other exchange words of love, and gifts that symbolize love: flowers, poems, special foods, and the like.

But don’t spend money. Don’t buy into the crass commercialism that wastes our resources and distracts us from the real point of the day. Just say “I love you and I’m glad you’re part of my life.”

D and K: I love you, and I’m glad you’re part of my life.

Read about the amorous behavior of birds in my yard:
"Valentine's Day is for the Birds"

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