Why We Celebrate St. Valentine’s Day

The following is from a blog post by Dr. Gene Veith and I like his explanation for St. Valentine’s Day. I pray you find it useful.

Why we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day

The influence of Christianity on our civilization is such that even secular-seeming holidays like Halloween and Valentine’s Day derive, if indirectly, from the church.  St. Valentine’s Day is a curious one, a celebration of romantic love.  I think this is a good thing to celebrate, but why do we do it, and what’s the connection with St. Valentine?

St. Valentine was a martyr for the faith, giving his life for his Christian convictions during the Roman persecutions.  (I hope someone is recording the names of the martyrs who are giving their lives for their Christian convictions during the current Islamic persecutions.  We should put their names on the Christian calendar too.)

But why is St. Valentine associated with romantic love?  You will hear stories that he secretly presided over weddings for Roman soldiers, despite the Emperor’s forbidding of marriage.  And that he gave a message–some say, shaped like a heart–to his jailer’s daughter, signing it, “your Valentine.”  You might hear other accounts of why he became the patron saint of lovers.

But those stories are late additions to the saint’s legend.  They were added after St. Valentine’s Day was already associated with love, the first time being in the 1380s.

I have an alternative explanation.

The connection, in my view, comes not from the saint but from his day.  In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, every day is assigned to one or more saints, usually the anniversary of his or her death.

For example, St. Crispin’s Day is October 25, which was also the date of the English victory of the French at Agincourt.  Thus we have Shakespeare’s rendition of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, which has become a staple of British patriotism.  But St. Crispin, another martyr, had nothing to do battles or England or patriotism.  He’s just the patron of the particular day on which the battle was held.

St. Valentine’s Day happens to be February 14.

In 1382, Chaucer wrote an allegory of courtly love in which Nature convenes a parliament of birds, in which they discuss how to choose a mate.  In this poem, The Parliament of Fowls, is the first association of St. Valentine’s Day with love.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese [choose] his make [mate].

So, according to Chaucer, birds begin to mate on St. Valentine’s Day; that is, February 14.  That sounds rather early.  February is still hard winter in England, though with the calendar shifts and climate changes, it may have been warmer in the 14th century.  I favor the notion that Chaucer was thinking of a day devoted to another saint, Valentine of Genoa, who was venerated on the third day of the lusty month of May.

But, in any event, Chaucer’s popular medieval poem made the connection between the day and the theme of love.  What birds do, people do.  What Chaucer portrayed as the birds’ romantic dramas are people’s romantic dramas.

So knights and ladies, in the golden age of courtly love, began celebrating St. Valentine’s Day as a special time devoted to romantic love.  They would send each other messages, including anonymous love notes to those they had a crush on but lacked the nerve to approach.  Then came Hearts and Cupids, part of the medieval iconography of love.   Then all of the other customs.  Eventually, Hallmark  got ahold of it, along with candy manufacturers, florists, and the restaurant industry.

For Chaucer, romantic attraction, whether between birds or people, is the work of Nature, and, unlike the Platonic version that started as purely “spiritual” but often led to adultery (as with Lancelot and Guinivere), it found its fulfillment in marriage.

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