Valentine’s Day  



James Shockley

Many years ago, when I was in the second or third grade, we had to give out valentines to all of the members of our class.

We had no idea that valentines were supposed to be tokens of love and affection.  As far as we were concerned, we were just being forced to hand out a bunch of sappy cards. Two types of cheap cards were available in packages we could afford.

One type had innocuous pictures of little girls, boys and animals along with the words, “Happy Valentine’s Day.” The other had poorly drawn pictures of grotesque people with slogans such as “Happy Valentine you fat old pig.”

The girls, of course, gave out the sweet valentines. The boys wanted to give out the insulting ones, but, in general, our parents would not let us have them. One or two boys, however, would get a package of the bad valentines and show them to the rest of us.

We never knew if they actually gave them out, but they claimed they did. I should mention that there always was one special oversized “bad” valentine. It was designed for the teacher, but I don’t think anyone had the nerve to actually give it to her.

Valentine’s Day is a day with a dual purpose. It is a day to emphasize romantic love and a day to honor a third century saint that no one knows much about.

About the only things known about the actual life of Saint Valentine are the place where he lived and served as bishop, the date of his death and the manner in which he was martyred.

There are a number of church writings about him, explaining his saintly character, but most historians are suspicious of them. In fact, there are several Saint Valentines, but the first, and most prominent, was martyred on Feb. 14, 273 A.D. (A Saint’s day commemorates the day when the Saint entered Heaven, not the day of his birth.) Supposedly, Bishop Valentine was sent to Rome by the authorities where he met Caesar Claudius II. Claudius took a liking to him but turned on him when Valentine tried to convert him to Christianity and had him beheaded.

So little is known about Valentine that the Roman Catholic Church eventually removed his Saint’s Day from the official calendar. He still can be locally venerated on Feb. 14, but the celebration is not church-wide.

One thing we do know: there is no record of any connection of Valentine to romance. So, how did Valentine’s Day become a day of love?

During the Middle Ages, the idea developed that birds choose their mates during the middle of February, about the time of Valentine’s Day. Apparently this developed into a similar concept for humans. The earliest reference to this is in Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules” (Parliament of Fowls).  In the poem, nature is shown as a queen who sits on a flowered hill. All the birds born of love were there to hear her.

“For this was on saint Valentine’s Day when all the birds of any kind come to choose their mates.”

This may be our first recorded reference to love and Valentine’s Day, but some scholars think that Chaucer may have invented the entire thing and passed it off as if it were a known “fact.”

It is certain that Shakespeare knew that Saint Valentine’s Day was a day of love.  In Hamlet act four and scene five, Ophelia, who is mad, sings a song for King Claudius about a young woman who, because it is the eve of St. Valentine’s Day, offers to come into a young man’s room. The next morning, she complains that he had promised to marry her.

The young man replies that he would have done so if she had not actually come to his bed. One implication is that a similar event might have been responsible for Ophelia’s madness.

I trust that when you and your loved-one go out to a fancy meal on Valentine’s Day that you, in contrast to the young man in Ophelia’s song, will think about the implications of love as much as about the feelings of love.

I doubt that you will think about poor beheaded Saint Valentine.

James Shockley writes a monthly history column. He lives in Blacksburg.