Friday, February 9, 2007
You can't keep love down: Happy Valentine's Day
Next Wednesday, we celebrate that reddest and most effusive of holidays, Valentine's Day. Hearts, flowers, cards, candlelight, candy and jewelry will appear everywhere. The American Greeting Card Association reports that Americans purchase nearly a billion Valentine cards each year, over 50% of them within six days of February 14 (hurry up, procrastinators), and 3% for their pets. Skeptics call the day a "Hallmark Holiday," but most of us jump right into the spirit, and why not? In a world where hate and isolation grow more threatening with every passing year, here is a holiday that, despite all the commercialism, celebrates love, the warmest of all human emotions.
Valentine's Day has not always been as lighthearted or as much fun as it is today. Its history is as murky and full of contradiction complexity as the emotion it honors.
A history shrouded in religious conflict
The modern holiday traces its origins to a couple of ancient saints and churchmen, variously called Valentine and Valentinus. Valentinus was born in Africa around 100 C.E. and educated in Alexandria in Egypt. He spent most of his adult years in Rome and became prominent in the Christian community there, becoming a candidate for bishop in the early Church. He developed a doctrine of Gnosticism, however, and preached that wisdom (in the feminine form of "Sophia") and all morality and creativity emanated from within, and that human beings had only to overcome their ignorance of this divine "spark" within them to achieve salvation. This heart-driven philosophy and the feminine influence of Sophia, the personification of wisdom, as well as the celebration of married love as central to Christianity, ran afoul of the celibate form of spiritual love espoused by the Church, and presaged a conflict of spiritual vs. erotic love that has come down to us through the centuries.
Stories have also grown up about another Valentine, a priest near Rome in about 270 C.E., who became a martyr to the cause of love. During the reign of the emperor Claudius II, he not only preached then forbidden Christianity and refused to recognize Roman gods, but also secretly married soldiers to their sweethearts. Claudius II had forbidden marriage to soldiers because he thought that attachment to their wives and families distracted them from their duties. Valentine was imprisoned and condemned to death, and supposedly wrote a farewell note to his jailer's daughter signed, "from your Valentine," a phrase that long survived the doomed saint.
In ancient Greece, the period between mid-January and mid-February was a month dedicated to the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera. These two deities became, under the Romans, Jupiter and Juno, the latter of whom was considered chaste and called Juno Februa, or Juno the Purifier. Her purification celebration was on February 13 and 14, just before the festival of Lupercalia on February 15. Lupercalia was a bawdy tribute to fertility during which noble youths and magistrates made animal sacrifices, dipped long pieces of leather or hide in the blood of the sacrifices, and then ran naked up and down the streets of the city, striking those they met with the bloody whips. Plutarch reported that women purposely waylaid the men, presenting their hands to be struck so that those who were pregnant would have easy deliveries, and those who were barren would become pregnant.
The holiday we know today probably traveled to these shores with British settlers in the late 18th and 19th centuries, along with the sentimental valentine stories in women's publications like Godey's Ladies' Book.
In those days, Valentine greetings were largely homemade. Inspired by an English one she received in 1847, a young woman named Esther Howland gathered lacy papers, ribbon, and other materials and began creating her own and taking orders for them. In 1850, she placed her first advertisement in a Worcester, Massachusetts newspaper and began selling printed versions of her valentines through her father's Worcester stationery shop. Victorian America caught the craze and elaborate valentine cards became the order of the day. Before long, candy shops marketed their way into the celebration with "sweets to the sweet," and flower shops and jewelry shops soon followed suit.
The commercial holiday has spread worldwide. In Japan and Korea, Valentine's Day is a day for women, more often than men, to give chocolate to friends and loved ones. On March 14, men return the favor on "White Day," by giving white chocolate or marshmallows, or, more recently, lingerie. Similar holidays, not always in February but often including token gifts, dancing, rituals and flowers occur in Israel, China, Brazil, Colombia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and even, discreetly and despite government disapproval, in Iran.
Back home in America, we know how to celebrate. Happy Valentine's Day to all!
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito