Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day

As almost everyone with a pulse knows, today is Valentine's Day. For most people today, that means sending someone a "valentine" or giving a gift to one's "valentine." For adults this all has important romantic connotations, although when I was a school kid, way back when, we routinely gave "valentines" to our classmates and friends, with no romantic connotation whatsoever! 
The full title for today's holiday is, of course, Saint Valentine's Day - a title which suggests (and invites) an integration of the romantic relationships primarily associated with the day  into a larger conception of the world.
But first a word about the historical Saint Valentine! The Roman Martyrology's traditional entry for today - Die 14 februarii memoria Romae via Flaminia iuxta pontem Milvium, sancti Valentini, martyris - refers to a certain Valentinus, martyred on February 14, at Rome on the Via Flaminia near the Milvian Bridge. Beyond his martyrdom, nothing certain is known about his life - as Pope Gelasius I acknowledged when he added St. Valentine to the calendar in 496. Even the entry about Valentine in The Golden Legend is surprisingly brief. Valentine is traditionally identified as a Roman priest martyred c. 269, although another Valentine, Bishop of Interamna, supposedly martyred at Rome in 273, has also been identified with the Roman Valentine.
Pope Gelasius also abolished the ancient pagan Rome festival of Lupercalia, which used to occur on this date, a feast which honored the wolf which had nursed Romulus and Remus, but which was pre-Roman in origin and had strong associations with fertility and even romance. One unproven popular theory is that the romantic customs connected with Lupercalia survived in christianized form in Valentine's Day.
One late legend about Valentine is that he incurred the Emperor's hostility because he performed marriages in defiance of an imperial edict. While hard to substantiate historically, that legend does attempt to make a connection between the actual martyr and the romantic associations which have come to characterize his feast.
No emperors are attempting to outlaw marriage in today's world (at least none that I know of), but marriage and family life are widely recognized as being in a sorry state - as evidenced by the abandonment of marriage by many and the common acceptance of divorce among those who do marry, all of which is being exacerbated in our society by increasing economic inequality which is making marriage less and less attractive to many in less favored socio-economic circumstances. So, for all its admittedly frivolous triviality, perhaps Valentine's Day deserves more serious attention, as we as a society grapple with reintegrating romance into a larger, more holistic conception of human life and society.

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