BY: RICHARD HASKELL
Let’s face it. The month of February doesn’t have a lot going for it. Yes, the days are getting longer, but the weather remains cold and there are still several weeks to go before there’s any hint of spring. So it seems somewhat ironic that a day positioned exactly half-way through one of the bleakest months of the year should be set aside for a celebration of love and romance. Doesn’t it?
The history of Valentine’s Day
But February 14 wasn’t always about candy, flowers and professions of love toward a significant other. Instead, the history of Valentine’s Day is somewhat grim.
Valentine’s Day evolved as a celebration of Valentinus, a Christian priest and physician living in Rome during the third century A.D. There remains some confusion about Valentinus – and in fact it is thought he may have been two different people – but one story says that Valentinus was imprisoned for performing weddings of soldiers who were forbidden to marry. While in jail, he made friends with his jailer, Asterius, who had a visually-impaired daughter. Valentinus fell in love with her, and the feeling must have been mutual, for she continued to bring the doomed priest food and messages.
Through his faith, Valentinus was able to regain her sight and he convinced both her and her father to adopt Christianity. Shortly after, he was made to appear before Emperor Claudius. Impressed by his humility and dignity, the emperor offered him one more chance to revert to Paganism. But Valentinus refused to relent, and his attempts to convert the emperor to Christianity were unsuccessful. Shortly before his execution, he signed a farewell message to the jailer’s daughter, signing it ‘from your Valentine.’
Valentinus was beheaded on February 14, A.D. 270.
For centuries, the Romans had celebrated Lupercalia on February 15, a festival marking the return of spring and a celebration of fertility. Young men would draw names of young women who would be obligated to act as their ‘companions’ for the duration of a year. (Clearly, equality of the sexes had a long way to go!) Pope Gelasius eventually ended this pagan festival and instead of men drawing names of women, both sexes drew names of saints, with the idea that the person would have to emulate the ways of that particular saint over the next twelve months.
Valentinus himself was eventually made a patron saint, a sort of ‘spiritual overseer’ of the festival, replacing the pagan Lupercus as the patron saint of love. In AD 496, Galasius declared February 14 to be the Feast Day of Saint Valentine. Soon young men began the custom of offering handwritten greetings of affection to women they wished to court.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t for another 1,000 years, during the High Middle Ages and the time of courtly love, that the celebration became more widely spread. One of the earliest Valentine cards was sent by the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife in 1415; the card is now preserved in the British Museum.
As a day celebrating love, February 14 had become firmly established by the 17th century and by then, it was customary to give greeting cards and “keys” to unlock the heart. The late 19th century brought the first commercial cards and the tradition continues to this day, with Valentine’s Day remaining one of the busiest times of year for card-sellers.
Valentine’s Day and Epilepsy
Epilepsy has been recognized for at least 4000 years. The ancient Egyptians, Hindus, Aztecs and Incas, considered it an affliction linked to the gods. Though there was never a rationale behind why some were affected by it, the disorder was long perceived as supernatural, an evil demon bestowed by the gods as a punishment inhabiting the body of an unfortunate soul. Christianity maintained this perception and there are several references to epilepsy in the New Testament.
But how does Saint Valentine fit in? For one thing, there is a phonetic similarity in the German language between the words ‘fallen’ (fall) and Valentine, and this led to epilepsy as being referred to as the ‘Saint Valentine’s illness.’ Yet in non-German speaking areas, the connection was naturally not as strong. For example, in France, it was generally to Saint Jean to whom people turned for help, while in Anglo-Saxon countries, it was most often Saint Paul.
Nevertheless, Saint Valentine was viewed as a performer of miracles, did he not regain the sight of a young blind woman? And it was claimed that he had freed a young woman named Serapia about to be married from an evil spirit – was it epilepsy?
Stories about his cures would have spread far and wide, thus enhancing his reputation and increasing the number of those appealing to him for help with epilepsy. It was thought by some that Valentinus himself may have had suffered from epilepsy.
In this way, he became the epilepsy’s patron saint.
In Italy, the connection is deemed to be so close that in 1988, Saint Valentine’s dual role as a patron of lovers and of epilepsy was depicted on a postage stamp. The saint is shown hovering over two lovers who are lying down while above them, brain waves from an EEG test stretch across the centre. Trust the Italian postal service – Poste Italiane – to show such imagination and creativity!
Whether or not you celebrate Valentine’s Day, try to approach it with an open mind and an open heart. If you are currently without a “significant other,” then reach out to family and friends, or perform random acts of kindness to strangers, not only on the 14th, but throughout the entire month. (You can also send a brain-o-gram and spread brain injury awareness!)
Is this great world ever in desperate need of love! Was it really 50 years ago that Burt Bacharach and Hal David penned “What the World Needs Now (is love sweet love)” immortalized by Jackie de Shannon? The sentiment remains truer today than ever. There is still far too much conflict amongst us, and the need for love is greater than ever. The popular advice columnist Ann Landers once wrote:
Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.
To this reflection, I say Amen – and to everyone – a happy Valentine’s Day!