The mystery of Valentine’s day


Come 14th February and the whole world gets painted with love. The day being celebrated as St. Valentine’s day sees the cupid hitting his arrow ubiquitously. Though the celebrations begin a week prior, the peak chaos is reached on this day only. For the last few days the TV and the papers are full of articles on Valentine’s day, the night clubs are ready for the Valentine’s ball and new food and drink menu are designed to please the Venus, the florists, gifts and card shop are all decked up for welcoming Valentine on one hand while on the other debates are ongoing in South East Asia about the impact of such celebrations on our culture and young ones. Only yesterday the Pakistan Supreme court banned the Valentine’s day celebration. “According to the National Retail Survey, the average person spent an estimated $142.31 for Valentine’s Day on candy, flowers, apparel and more in 2015—up from $133.91 the previous year in USA alone. Total spending approached $19 billion—the highest yet for the holiday.”  So much of hype and fuss made me think as to who was this St. Valentine and why this day is being celebrated in the way it is with people spending 19 billion US dollars every year in US alone? So, I spent some time looking for answers and all I got was more questions than answers.

The first place anyone starts is the Wiki. So did I. And to my surprise it defined “It originated as a Western Christian liturgical feast day honouring one or more early saints named Valentinus”. One or more, I said? Does this mean we are not sure if there was a saint Valentine or were there more than one? So in whose found memory we are celebrating? Or we are celebrating without knowing why we are celebrating?

Another search of Wiki showed “Saint Valentine of Terni, is a widely recognized third-century Roman saint commemorated on February 14 and since the High Middle Ages is associated with a tradition of courtly love.” “All that is reliably known of the saint commemorated on February 14 is his name and that he was martyred and buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Ponte Milvio to the north of Rome on that day.” Just that and nothing else? Who was he and what did he do to get commemorated? This required further search and search of other sources.

On, David Kithcart writes quoting Father Frank O’Gara of Whitefriars Street Church in Dublin, Ireland that “He was a Roman Priest at a time when there was an emperor called Claudias who persecuted the church at that particular time.” “He also had an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because married soldiers might be afraid of what might happen to them or their wives or families if they died.” “The idea of encouraging them to marry within the Christian church was what Valentine was about. And he secretly married them because of the edict.” “In the year 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution of a beating, stoning, and finally decapitation all because of his stand for Christian marriage.”

Oh! So Valentine’s day should be about being married and getting married and not about courtship and girlfriends and live-in’s as it seems to have been celebrated for years. Where did it came from? The answer to this question came from Jack B Oruch’s, “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February” published in 1981 i Speculum (56:534-65) that said “Since no coherent tradition preceded Chaucer and since his contemporaries followed his lead, it seems likely that Chaucer is “the original myth maker in this instance,” inaugurating the Valentine-day tradition as we know it.” So it was Geoffrey Chaucer in Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of Fowls) who started it somewhere in 14th century!!

Though I am an avid reader of literature both in local vernacular and in English, yet somehow I have not read Chaucer and being inquisitive could not stop myself from making a search and looking for the “Parlement of Foules”. It seems that only a handful of copies of work exists and the original work is thought to be almost lost but yet there the pertinent lines could be found as

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day

Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

This can be loosly translated into “For this was on St. Valentine’s day when every bird come there to choose his mate.” Ah! February, the redolent of spring, being the time for the bird mating, has probably led to these lines, is it? Since ancient times, mid-February has always been linked to sex and fertility. Ancient Athenians celebrated February as the month of Gamelion to commemorate the marriage of the Greek god Zeus to Hera—the goddess of women, marriage and childbirth.

I stumbled upon writings of Dr. Jean E Jost, Ph.D., Medieval Literature from University of Cincinnati and Professor of English, who in her article entitled “Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, as a valentine fable, The subversive poetic of feminine desire” wrote eloquently and discussed the Chaucer’s idea of Valentine. Her opening lines are eye opener “Chaucer’s initiation of St. Valentine’s day as a celebration for love birds of all species began a remarkable tradition of wide social and cultural impact still blooming today in florists and Hallmark shops around the world.” “Smitten medieval courts eagerly implemented Chaucer’s literary suggestion instituting programs to further the already well known practice of courtly love.”

“More than a Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, is rooted in pagan partying,” National Geographic reported.  Paganism is best described as a “group of religions and spiritual traditions based on a reverence for nature.” In Rome the annual pagan celebration was called Lupercalia, that was held every year on February 15. On the eve of Lupercalia, February 14, a holiday in honour of Juno, queen of the gods and patroness of marriage, used to be held. The Feast of the Purification in AD 494 was perhaps started to replace Lupercalia. It is stated that with the Catholic church gaining influence over rome Lupercalia was modified even further. “Instead of putting the names of girls into a box, the names of “saints” were drawn by both boys and girls.” It was then each person’s duty to emulate the life of the saint whose name he or she had drawn.

It seems to have remained so till beginning of the 15th century or some 25 years after the Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules” published in 1372. In 1415, Charles, the Duke of Orleans, sent the oldest-known recorded Valentine message to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London, and this appears as the beginning of the present Valentine’s day. He wrote

Je suis desja d’amour tanné

Ma tres doulce Valentinée…

— Charles d’Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2

Dr. Jost on subversive poetic of feminine desire wrote “poems written specifically for the Valentine’s day reflect the actual social situation and the attitude endorsing the courtly construct, idealization but not acceptance of actual women.” Everyone takes a vow of eternal faithfulness as they claim their love, but what happens to those who are unsuccessful?” Dr. Jost in her essay concluded “The realm of sexual as well as gender politics must be seen as part of power mechanisations by which Chaucer upset the Valentine applecart. His subversive privileging of the feminine desire both substantial and erotic, in its foreplaying deferral, is an effectively subtle means of countering an all to patriarchal strong hold on courtly fine amour.”

The earliest description of February 14 as an annual celebration of love appears in the Charter of the Court of Love. The charter, allegedly issued by Charles VI of France at Mantes-la-Jolie in 1400.  Margery Brewes writing to her future husband John Paston in 1477 wrote “my right well-beloved Valentine.” William Shakespeare in Hamlet wrote

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,

And dupp’d the chamber-door;

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more.

Who has not heard the Nursery rhyme “roses are red violets are blue” but a few would know that valentine makes his presence even in this Gammer Gurton’s Garland’s 1784 rhyme that reads referring to the modified Pagen culture of draw of lots

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,

The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

Thou art my love and I am thine;

I drew thee to my Valentine:

The lot was cast and then I drew,

And Fortune said it shou’d be you.

Is Valentine’s day celebrated by all? The answer is no. Saint Valentine’s Day is an official feast day in the Anglican Communion (international association of autonomous churches consisting of the Church of England and national and regional Anglican churches ) as well as in the Lutheran Church (Lutheranism is a major branch of Protestant Christianity which identifies with the theology of Martin Luther). Many parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest Christian church and one of the oldest current religious institutions in the world) also celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day, albeit on July 6 and July 30, the former date in honour of the Roman presbyter Saint Valentine, and the latter date in honour of Hieromartyr Valentine, the Bishop of Interamna.

Well, I am now scrupulously confused. This appears to be just a British and French celebration with other churches either not celebrating or celebrating it in July. There are legends and stories and more than one Saint Valentine, of these atleast three appears in connection with February 14 according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, of these three which one is original, I guess no one knows. Saint Valentine, the Bishop of Interamna whose date of martyrdom is either 14 February or July 6 seems to be the same person.  Apart from the three associated with February 14, there appears to be seven others who attain martyrdom on dates other than this and are commemorated in the Roman Catholic Church.

I knew the history is confusing and I am lucky that I opted for biology instead. I fully understand now that the genesis of St. Valentine’s day is as confusing as any other history and one may believe what one may, Valentine’s day may just have been created by poets. However, one thing is very clear to me that this is a market strategy and has nothing to do with love or courtship; it could have been any other day any other month and still would have been a good business. It’s actually the business and the industry that reap the ripe fruit of love, lust and courtship as individuals shell out theirs and their parents hard earned money to buy cards, gifts, flowers and spend the night drinking and dining to specially designed menu and music.


6 thoughts on “The mystery of Valentine’s day

  1. Ever tried the same sort of research on Karva chauth? I am sure the origins would be equally mired in myths,beliefs,stories and finally faith. Although personally I don’t believe in public demonstrations of a very private emotion,I understand that people do..and they should be allowed the uncomplicated and unconditional enjoyment of the most beautiful emotion of all

  2. आपका अनुमान ही वास्तव में सही है
    सर यदि आपकी आज्ञा हो तो ये रिसर्च आन्वीक्षिकी जर्नल के जनवरी फरवरी २०१७ अंक में प्रकाशित करूँ जिससे और लोग भी इस समृद्ध लेख को पढ सकें
    इस लेख को पढ़कर अंग्रेजी साहित्य के शोध छात्र और शिक्षक लाभान्वित होंगे

    • I would not mind but will also be publishing in IMS magazine, if you have no problem you can go ahead. And hope they will not feel threatened that i am now writing on English literature too. There are also no references in article as they are embedded in it for blog

  3. Thoroughly researched one,sir……I agree that it,s a bussiness idea only now a days,more than anything else,but reading the article fully i ponder over it n I think pegans were right……date could be anyone in feb….but across the cultures n religions…for all the poets alike… has stimulated the thoughts of eternal love to all….coz it simply signifies the meeting point for two weather’s/seasons… n cold…..yin n yang…boy n girl…birds….if we go deeper in the hindu vedic literatures……I,m sure you would not have missed the mention of mahashivratri…..the ultimate union of shiva n parvati(shakti)…..more than just a coincidence….nothing is having more universal appeal than weather n love…..creating a perfect background for everyone to inspire their creation..same goes for businesses…lots of discounts n offers to sattle the huge backlog of old/new materialistic things….

    • The similar period in India is March, India is predominantly a farming country and winters are not as cold as are in UK and France. The festivity in India actually starts with cultivation of Rabi crops. Further from ages the system of choosing mates in India had been different, even in the time of swayamvar’s. I dont think any one would agree to idea of drawing a chit every year and mate for a year and then draw a new chit. The system and believes are different, though Indian system is similar to pagen with emphasis on nature, yet its very different.
      Fully agree with the business part, the change is also happening in the way we celebrate birthday, anniversaries etc, there too the traditional pandits are taking backseat and flowers, gifts, dining is increasing.. all driven by industry.

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