Given the nature of this week and its quasi pseudo semi-holiday, today I offer a brief history of Valentine’s Day even though everyone knows Saint Valentine wore boxers. Ha ha! Just kidding. Actually, I mean ‘brief’ in terms of being ‘short,’ as in Robert Reich or the life span of a ‘no new taxes’ pledge.
If I may again quote Grammy award-winning artist Adele, “Rumor has it” that Valentine’s Day started from an ancient Roman festival called “Lupercalia,” which would be a great name for a German rock band (“Ich bin ein Gitarrist in Lupercalia”). Lupercalia was celebrated in mid-February but eventually died out since it was in direct competition with the Bing Crosby Clam Bake and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. It is said that during Lupercalia the names of young Roman maidens were placed in a jar which were in turn drawn by young Roman men to create couples of chance, thus originating terms like ‘romance,’ ‘romantic,’ and ‘I have a headache.’
Unfortunately, much like a baseball steroids hearing, very little of what was just said is true. It turns out that Lupercalia has no connection to Valentine’s Day other than its coincidental Februarian locale.
Like many Western holidays hijacked by greeting card companies and retailers and manufacturers of green beer, Valentine’s Day is a caricature of a saintanic Christian celebration. It all started with the Roman emperor Claudius II, who was more or less the 24-hour news channel of his day in that he had a penchant for persecuting those who thought differently. Except Claudius would do extra-crazy things like nail them to stakes or cut off their heads or toss them into an arena with the Lions—the last of which doesn’t seem overly cruel until you realize that this was back 2000 years ago when the Lions had a winning record.
The legend is that Claudius, obviously never having seen an actual episode of “The Bachelor,” thought that bachelors made better soldiers because they were manlier, more virile, and more willing to fight. He therefore made the decision to prohibit marriages amongst the ranks, and thus prevented many rank marriages. A rabid right-wing Christian libertarian zealot priest named Valentine thought this was just one more example of stupidly intrusive government regulation. “Who does he think he is?” said Valentine, “Michael Bloomberg?”
So Valentine secretly performed marriage ceremonies in defiance to Claudius. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, he was sentenced to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off (those Roman emperors didn’t fool around). While in prison awaiting execution, the legend continues, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and right before his murder, allegedly sent her a Hoops & Yoyo card signed, “from your Valentine.” It was on February 14th that Valentine was purportedly martyred (which, incidentally, would be a catchy name for a mid-size sedan, e.g., “the Dodge Martyr”).
Then, in 496 AD along came the gelatinously named Pope Gelasius (which is not a good name for a car at all, e.g., “the Ford Gelasius”). Gelasius traded Valentine to New Orleans where he became a Saint with his very own commemorative Christian feast and handsome lapel pin. (As an aside, Valentine was traded again in 1969 so his status as a Saint has since been rescinded.)
The romantic aspect of Valentine’s Day seems to not have blossomed until a thousand years later when Chaucer referred to it in one of his many perplexing poems written for the purpose of exasperating high-school students of the future. He wrote,
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make
which provides a good example of what valentines looked like before the advent of spell-checker.
The earliest surviving paper valentine is a 15th-century Rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orléans, to his wife while he was being held as a war prisoner in the Tower of London:
Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée…
Now I don’t speak French, but if I know anything about men, I think it can be roughly translated as, “Here’s a couple of bucks. Go get yourself something pretty. (burp) And make me a sandwich.”
It wasn’t long after this that poetry was foolishly thought to be an aphrodisiac, and the 1500s saw the composition of the first “Roses are red, Violets are blue” poem written by Edmund Spenser, aimed at wooing a fair maiden to his bed:
Roses are red…
Violets are blue.
Be my valentine…
Poems are hard.
Rhyming came later. As did Edmund’s success.
Mass production of paper valentine cards began in the 1850s and shortly after this the elementary school Valentine’s Day Party was invented, an event wherein valentines were distributed via brown paper lunch sacks self-decorated with lace doilies and effeminate colors (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This was the precursor to modern Socialism in that an equal number of valentine cards had to be given to everyone in the class, and to which the rich kids would ostentatiously attach a Life Savers Swirl sucker or a Tootsie Pop or, more often than not on my card, a Dum Dum.
Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that Valentine’s Day has evolved into little more than an excuse to have expensive candle-lit dinners, eat chocolate, then compose lame blog posts while sitting around in one’s briefs. Ha ha! Just kidding. I wear boxers too.