Like you, I have been aware of this designated day of love for most of my life. This is my first Valentine’s Day as a widow. I find myself telling many friends and family members to enjoy this day, and that I love them - - and I do - - and yet, something feels just a little bit off. It is not just because I am no longer married on this earth. It is something else. There is something about the meaning of this day of which I am not really a part this year, or at least, I did not think so.
Until this year, I never particularly cared how the observance got started, or why it has become such an expression of romance and love. Is this some centuries old tradition or an invention by florists, candy makers and greeting card manufacturers to sell merchandise? I was a tiny bit surprised at what I found just by looking on the website called Wikipedia. (I am drawing my descriptions of a few of the legends from that website.) As one might expect, there are a number of explanations - - all of them quite old.
It would seem that at least one legend goes back to third century Rome, when Claudius II decided that single men were better in battle than married men, so he outlawed marriage for young men. A priest named Valentine decided that this was an unjust mandate, and began performing secret marriages for these young lovers. When it was discovered, this Valentine was put to death.
Another story regarding the death of Valentine was that he assisted Christians in escaping prison, where they were beaten and tortured. He himself was thrown into jail. It is reported that he personally sent the first “valentine” when he signed a letter to the object of his affection, purported to be the jailor’s daughter, as “from your Valentine” just before he was martyred.
These are legends, of course. But apparently, this Valentine was known to be a sympathetic, heroic and ultimately romantic, figure - - one who literally acted out of, and for romantic love. He was reported to have been put to death on or around the 14th of February in the year 270.
As with many of our Christian celebrations, it is also thought that our St. Valentine’s Day is a “Christianization” of a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia, occurring in mid-February. The Luperci was an order of Roman priests. They would gather at the cave where the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were supposedly raised from infanthood by she-wolves. They would then sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. After killing the animals, they would cut the goat’s hide into strips, dip them in the blood of the sacrificed animals and gently slap them against women as well as in the fields to engender increased fertility in both. Subsequent to this morning activity, the women would gather in the center of the town and place their names in a large urn. Young men would step forward and draw these names from the urn and thus, men and women would be paired. These pairings often resulted in marriage. And children.
Lupercalia initially survived the onset of Christianity, but was outlawed as “un-Christian” at the end of the 5th century. February 14th was designated as Valentine’s Day by Pope Gelasius. It was not until much later that it came to be definitively associated with love. In the Middle Ages, in England and France, it was thought that the mating season for birds began on or around the ides, or middle, of February, so that is another explanation of the timing of Valentine’s Day.
So, legends abound, and the day has long been associated with romantic love. Present day merchants are not totally to blame for this one… Not totally.
I’ve been very fortunate. Since my teens, there have been relatively few years that I have marked a Valentine’s Day outside of a romantic relationship of some sort. Certainly, this is the first in the last twenty years. Yet, I am not sad or feeling deprived of love this year! In fact, just to the contrary!
When “hosting” and “serving” a Valentine’s Dinner at my church earlier this week, I wanted to honor my love for, and marriage to, my late husband in some way. I did not want to feel sad or weepy; I wanted to enjoy the fellowship that such an evening could bring by serving others. (He had rarely attended these dinners due to his schedule and health concerns, yet I always knew he was at home waiting for me.) Thanks to my recent diet and exercise activities, I was able to wear the same outfit that I had worn to the rehearsal dinner on the night before our wedding in 1993. I put on the engagement ring John had given me, as I wore it that night 19 years ago, and wore also the emerald and diamond ring that he gave me to replace a marquis-shaped birthstone emerald class ring from college that got lost some years ago. My sister-in-law had given me a framed snapshot taken of us the night of the rehearsal where John was hugging me. I took that picture and placed it on the registration table at our Valentine’s Dinner. No matter what I was doing during the evening, I felt that John was there with me, in spirit, as he always had been in our life together. I remembered how happy and hopeful we were that night in 1993, anticipating the years we would have together, and by doing so, I was buoyed and joyous throughout an evening that perhaps some others were finding to be sad and empty.
This year, I did not need the flowers and since I am not supposed to be eating candy anyway, did not miss the chocolate! I have plenty of cards he had given me throughout our relationship. All I have to do is read them, or just look around to see the memories of the love he and I shared, and the life we built over the years in this house; whether through furnishings, the dogs we adopted, or pictures of us. I know that he loved me, and he knew that I loved him. We said so every day, multiple times, and managed to find ways of expressing it in other ways, too. I have not stopped feeling love for him, nor him for me, just because he has passed on to life with God in Heaven. As we held hands and he breathed his last on that day seven months ago, my final words to him were that I had and would always love him; and I always have and will.
As children of the living God, all of us are called to love each other. Love is action, not just an emotion. Love is putting the benefit of others before that of self. In the case of romantic love which today celebrates, the actions and demonstrations are more specific in nature, and generally support procreation activities. They have since the beginning of humanity, and are gifts from God, no matter how they have been perverted over the years for evil purposes. It is a gift worth celebrating!
If you are in a romantic relationship right now, celebrate it! Do those things for your beloved that tell that person how important he or she is to you! If you are “alone” physically due to the passing on of your beloved, remember with joy what you shared and celebrate! If you are between relationships, remember with joy those good times you have had, trust that God has something so very special in mind for you, and be open to it! And celebrate!
Happy Valentine’s Day!