Now, I know what you’re thinking. Always raining on every holiday that comes by (like how Christmas has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus). If it makes you feel any better, I think it’s reductionist to say Valentine’s Day is meaningless because of its history. I simply think it’s important to know more rather than less.
So, we come to Valentine’s Day – a day of roses, chocolates, flings and confessions. Was this always the tradition? Certainly not. Like many holidays, this one has its roots in Christianity. It was originally a Christian feast to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine. Unfortunately, the true story behind this holiday is a bit uncertain because there a few Saint Valentines recorded by the Church, all of whom could have been the subject of the original celebration.
As things go, this is the most popular and widely accepted story:
Roman emperor Claudius II had imposed a ban on marriage due to the concept that unmarried men made better soldiers. During this edict, a Christian priest named Valentine married couples in secret within the Christian church, thereby converting them to Christianity. He was sentenced to death upon being caught and was executed on the 14th of February.
A bit darker than the bubbles, rainbows and unicorns you’d expect of such a holiday, right? Most people recount this version of the Valentine’s story but there are two more.
A Christian priest, also by the name of Valentine but a different person to the first story, was jailed for helping Christians (which was a crime in his time and place). He fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and miraculously cured her eyesight. During his imprisonment, he sent her love letters signed “From your Valentine”. Eventually, he converted her father to Christianity (it helps that he magically cured her eyesight), and was later beheaded.
By now you’re probably noticing a huge religious influence behind these stories. The main theme is pretty much the conversion of faith, which is understandable. Many holidays were about that (again, refer to Christmas) and it makes sense for any organisation to require a method by which to spread its influence and popularity. On to the last story.
This one is a bit lacklustre compared to the others. The third Valentinus was a Gnostic teacher in Rome. He rejected the idea of celibacy and argued that marital love was central to Christianity. Gnosticism was later declared a heresy.
I can’t help but think maybe the last Valentine was just horny. I wouldn’t put it past a horny guy to go through a very indirect route to get what he wants. Forgive me for tarnishing his name but it makes me chuckle.
So those are the original stories of Valentine’s Day. Keep in mind, if they appear to be completely unrelated to the modern day equivalent, it’s probably because they are. The holiday itself was not established until almost 200 years after his death (270 CE) when Pope Gelasius the first wanted a holiday to replace the Pagan festivals to the god Lupercus. By establishing a feast for Saint Valentine in 469 CE, Pope Gelasius succeeded in converting many Pagans to Christianity by replacing their old celebrations of love and fertility. Again, the parallels to Christmas are remarkably strong.
In terms of symbols, hearts and chocolate fall very short. Traditionally, Valentine is represented by birds, bearing a sword, restoring sight to a blind girl and being beheaded.
So here we are at the contemporary Valentine’s Day, fussing over all manner of commercial goods. The profit margin for roses triples for a single day and the world’s insulin levels spike dangerously high as we indulge in chocolate. Many frown on this holiday because of that very same commercial aspect to it. Others say it is no special day because they love their partner every day of the year. I agree with both.
However, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be defiant of the holiday. You are “free” every day of the year but you can still celebrate an Independence Day. The holiday itself is only symbolic – it doesn’t mean “I only love you today because today is about love”. In the same way that Dawkins celebrates Christmas, there is nothing wrong with knowing the roots of this holiday being founded in Christian conversion and still celebrating it for what it is today. Symbols only have whatever meaning we give to them.
To the lonely, I say enjoy tomorrow’s cheap candy prices. Remember, you can only know love if you’ve known what it is like to be alone. When you find somebody, your love will be all the sweeter.
To those who are spending their day with their partners, yes, it is ridiculously commercialised, labelled and expensive, but there’s nothing wrong with joining in the spirit.
To those who have someone but are unable to see them today, just remember, you have another 364 days to try. Valentine’s Day is only a symbol, and a symbol only has whatever meaning you give to it. Make another day special and give it the same meaning. It can be your own, private Valentine’s.