Of the 15 or so holidays and special occasions celebrated in the United States, three-quarters of them are straightforward.
What I mean by that is, we know their history. We know the names and the years, and the events that led up to them becoming holidays, and we know where those events took place. We know the states that were the early adopters, and the governors and presidents who made it official, and we know what it is we’re celebrating.
Veterans Day, Mother’s Day, Labor Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Presidents Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Like I said, straightforward.
But we’ve got a few that are less definite. The history, customs and traditions associated with the holiday are woven together from a bunch of different strands and legends.
Like Valentine’s Day. There are at least three different martyred saints, a pope, a king, an emperor, a British poet, a pagan festival and customs of Victorian England that have all been implicated in the “love holiday,” and how it is observed and celebrated.
The one I like best tells of a Roman priest who got busted for secretly marrying young couples in defiance of an imperial decree that required all weddings had to be approved by the emperor. He wanted a powerful army, and he thought if young men got married and had families, they would be less inclined to fight for him, and less fierce if they did.
The priest, Valentino, looked at marriage as a celebration of Christ’s love, so he kept performing the ceremonies in secret. The cops got wind of it and threw him in jail, where he became friends with the warden, who admired the priest for his warmth and wisdom. The warden enlisted the priest as a tutor for his blind daughter, and the priest and the girl became very fond of each other, which may or may not suggest a romantic relationship.
The warden and his daughter weren’t the only ones fond of the priest; so was the emperor, who offered to let the priest go if he agreed to stop marrying people, and if he renounced the Christian God in favor of the Roman gods.
Valentine refused to renounce his faith, so they cut off his head. Before they did, however, he sent a note to the blind girl. When she opened it, her sight was mysteriously restored. This would be the miracle that got him in as a saint, though that occurred long before the system and investigation process they currently have in place for canonization. The note was signed “Your Valentine.”
That became the first valentine’s card.
We’re still writing them today. Valentine’s Day is the No. 2 card-sending holiday of the year, second only to Christmas.
When we were in our earliest grades at school, they had us exchange valentines with all our classmates. It was an act of friendliness, a way of letting everyone know we’re all special, and it was important not to leave anyone out. As we grew older, it became a romantic ritual shared only with that someone special, or ones we hoped might become so.
In the U.S., flowers, chocolates and preprinted greeting cards are customary. Red is its color, and Cupid, the Roman god of love, its mascot, which is ironic considering that it honors someone who refused to accept the Roman gods.
The most prominent and enduring symbol of Valentine’s Day is the heart.
These days, most of the hearts I see are digital emojis shared in texts and emails and reactions to social media posts. Red hearts, blue hearts and purple ones. Like the commercial conventions, they are but symbols, representations of affection and approval, but hardly expressions of love. Don’t settle for symbols and manufactured messages.
It’s heart month and the holiday of love. Open yours, give yours.