St Valentine’s Day – also known as ‘THIS Sunday? I Thought It Was The Week After’– is almost upon us.
It’s impossible to avoid hearing or reading about it, yet the origins of Valentine himself are still shrouded in mystery. There were apparently a number of Valentines knocking around the Greater Roman area about 1800 years ago. The best guess we have is that St. Valentine may have been a bishop in Rome who clashed with the Emperor Aurelian. The emperor had ordered that young men remain unmarried. He believed single men made better warriors. He was apparently anxious to avoid a repeat of a previous war where a Swedish general had tolerated the presence of a large number of WAGs which made for a distracting sideshow to the business of pillaging barbarian lands.
Valentine performed secret marriage ceremonies for some of Aurelian’s soliders and for this he was punished with death. It’s believed he may have been betrayed by his wife, who was disappointed to receive a greeting card from him featuring a mosaic of a racing car and a pair of football boots, which had clearly been purchased at the last minute.
In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius made Valentine’s Day a feast day. His big idea was to try and entice the locals away from celebrating the pagan feast of Lupercalia. This celebration would have been difficult to compete with. Lupercalia was the kind of feast the Romans did well – highly organised debauchery. Nude noblemen ran through the streets striking people they met with hairy thongs made from the bloodied skins of sacrificed dogs and goats. Women would purposely get in the way as it was believed that getting a slap of a hairy thong improved their fertility. (Sure it could do no harm I suppose…)
Those days are long gone and apart from places like Lisdoonvarna, debauchery simply isn’t what it used to be.
However, despite being sanitised, Valentine’s Day is still important. For some it affords the time to reconnect with that special person in their lives, perhaps over a nice meal in a restaurant. For others, it’s a time to stand at the window of restaurants, making lewd gestures at the couples inside who are desperately trying to connect.
The cornerstone of Valentine’s Day is, of course the card. If you’ve just started going out with someone – say, you started around Christmas – Valentine’s Day coincides with that particularly awkward time where you’re not sure of the status of the relationship. You mightn’t have mentioned the L-word – Love, or even Like. Depending on how the relationship is proceeding you may have mentioned the other L-word: Lidl – where you trust someone enough to excitedly explain how you just bought a new electric drill and you’d “only gone in there for milk”.
For the couple on the cusp of a new phase in their relationship, Valentine’s Day can put pressure on the negotiations. It’s the equivalent of the aunt at a wedding who bellows across the room in front of everyone: “Ye two will be next, I ‘spose”.
It can be hard to find a card that doesn’t have the L word written on it. What is needed is a Valentine’s message which expresses their undoubted affection without getting carried away. Something like:
Roses are Red, Violets are Blue
My friends think you’re sound; So I do too.
One size does not fit all and a Valentine’s Day card for teenagers who met the weekend before at the parish disco would have a different message:
I give you this card and this meaningful gift
Shift Shift Pause-for-Breath; Shift Shift. Shift Shift
As time goes on, couples may become distracted from each other by other petty concerns. For this a card should express both the tenderness and the turmoil in their lives:
Roses are Red, Violets are Blue
I love you and all, but I’ve noticed those bean- stains on the new carpet and we both know it was you.
The Romans didn’t seem to be hung up on empathy and emotion as they celebrated Lupercalia. Apart from events with a sacrificial hairy thong theme, the other centrepiece was placing the names of all the local elligible women into an urn. Then they were drawn out to pair off with the men for the year. A kind of sexy bingo if you will. ( Albeit where Legs Eleven and Two Fat Ladies had a completely different meaning.)
This of course was too much for the early Christians, who feared that people would be having too much fun to feel guilty all the time. To counterract this practice, a number of early bishops ordered that the names of local girls be replaced with saints so that the men could instead choose their favourite saint to pray to. History does not record the Romans’ reaction to this change in the terms of reference but it’s fair to say that they may have said “Well that’s just great isn’t it?”
Of course Valentine didn’t have just one thing on his mind. As well as being a patron saint of couples, he also has responsibility for bees and plague. So if you were with someone that you told to buzz off and they’ve been plaguing you ever since, it seems like Valentine’s your man.