Because of the rampant commercialism associated with the holiday, Valentine’s Day is considered a “Hallmark holiday,” a day selected by a blindfolded intern at Hallmark HQ and pegged as one we consumers are told to celebrate by spending. It isn’t.
In the grocery store last week, the center of which is holiday-red right now and overstuffed with heart-shaped balloons and streamers, as if the store manager demanded a ticket-tape parade for Cupid himself, I walked past a fellow shopper who, shaking her head, declared out loud, “Valentine’s Day! Already?” because that is what we say when we view holiday decorations in stores nowadays. (Each reminder of time’s passage is responded to as a newly experienced emotional trauma in our culture, each time we encounter it.) It was February 10, the decorations had been up in this particular store since January 2, and there was no hint of irony in the person’s exclamation.
Starting in the late 1700s, publishers started printing and selling Valentine’s Day-oriented books, usually guides for young men to use in composing their love notes. On this much, most cultural historians seem to agree. The disagreements begin with who Valentine might have been and why February 14 is his feast day and extend to the question about what any of this has to do with chalky heart-shaped candies and smooching.
February 14 has been the date on which the Roman Catholic Church honors Saint Valentine since the Early Middle Ages, since 496 A.D. But even the early Church historians, writing in the fifth century, describe Valentine as a martyr about whom little was known, “whose acts are known only to God,” but who died near Rome on February 14 in the third century. Early on in its history, there might have been other Valentines that the Church celebrated on this day, but officially it is one Saint Valentine commemorated today, a martyr slain in 269 A.D.
It is in the uncertain connection between love and romance and the ancient martyred Valentine(s) that our current red candy-hearts beat ever-harder every February 14. Almost nine hundred years after February 14 became Saint Valentine’s Day, Chaucer mentions it in his poem, “The Parlement of Foules” (Parliament of Fowls/Birds), composed in the 1380s. In the poem, the narrator falls asleep while studying his books, searching for a “certeyn thing.” He dreams he is is brought to an annual meeting (parliament) of birds, at which they comically hold a debate to win mates for themselves, with Nature herself the arbiter. In introducing the debate, Chaucer writes, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”
This line is the one most often cited as the first mention in literature of Valentine’s Day as a day for wooing and courting, though the blog “Interesting Literature” yesterday reminded its readers that three of Chaucer’s friends also wrote of Valentine’s Day as a day for love in their poems. So perhaps there was a literary convention of “Valentine’s Day equals love” already in place by the 1380s and Chaucer is the writer who most spectacularly popularized it, such that we are giving cards to each other today.
“Interesting Literature” also speculates about what date Chaucer might have meant for Valentine’s Day, as birds do not often mate in England in February. The writer points out that
Artistic licence is obviously a factor here, and 14 February was already established as the Christian feast day of Saint Valentine. And yet some scholars, Henry Ansgar Kelly among them, have proposed that Chaucer was actually referring to 3 May, a date on which Valentine of Genoa, a bishop who died around AD 307, was commemorated. Another fact adds credence to the 3 May theory: it was on this date in 1381 that the engagement of Richard II (Chaucer’s patron) to Anne of Bohemia was announced. Chaucer possibly wrote his poem the following year to mark the one-year anniversary of the betrothal.
This is where mere controversy becomes a storm in literary circles. Where can one find the connection between Saint Valentine, his feast day, and romance?
In recent centuries the idea that Christian feast days were installed in the calendar to supplant pagan holidays gained credence and then lost it in yet more recent scholarship. It was thought that the celebration of Valentine’s Day replaced the Lupercalia, a purity and fertility festival held in Rome every February 13-15. Not only do these dates coincide neatly with our February holiday, but the pope under whom Saint Valentine’s Day was first celebrated is the same pope who did the most to end what remained of the Lupercalia in Rome, Pope Gelasius 1.
In one portion of the riotous Lupercalian festivities, young men dressed in the skins of sacrificed goats ran through the streets of Rome carrying short whips, and women desiring blessings of fertility would stand in the streets to be whipped. In a dispute with conservative senators fighting to preserve what remained of the traditional ways (even though they were now Christian), Gelasius wrote that if the senators were so committed to celebrating the Lupercalia they should run naked through the streets themselves. (He is close to becoming my favorite pope.)
It seems an “aha” connection between fertility and young cupid-with-an-arrow Valentine’s Day love, but fertility was only a part of the Lupercalia. It was a purification festival, celebrated with sacrifices. Current scholarship says that if Gelasius replaced the purification rites of the Lupercalia with anything, it was with Candlemas, the celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary, celebrated in early February.
Where did the connection between wooing and courting birds and Valentine’s Day originate? As “Interesting Literature” writes, “perhaps Chaucer ‘invented’—or at any rate helped to popularise—Valentine’s Day as a day of love and romance. It’s just that he possibly had a different date marked on his calendar for Valentine’s Day.” It is Geoffrey Chaucer’s fault that we are giving each other an extra sugar rush of love today. The great poet did not suggest that Valentine himself is the patron saint of lovers, just that on this date in February, the season of wooing and courting, the eternal annual debate of love, opens. As to the suggestion of the May dates as alternative Valentine’s Days, in the comments section the writer concedes that May is late for mating to finally start.
At the end of “Parlement of Foules,” the dreamer awakes and begins reading again, still hoping to find what he was looking for, “I hope in truth to read something someday / Such that I dream what brings me better fare,/ And thus my time from reading I’ll not spare.” Much like a scholar searching for the origins of an ancient holiday, floating somewhere between his dreams and books.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone, from Geoffrey Chaucer and me.
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The above is a re-post of a column written last February 14, when this web site was brand new.
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