Valentine, what?


by Pramod Kandanarachchi


Brecksville, Ohio

"For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make"
From Parliament of Foules by Geoffrey Chaucer (1382)

Saint Valentine’s Day is around the corner. Soon many lovers would take advantage of February 14 to express their adoration to their sweethearts by sharing greeting cards and chocolates (perhaps a few smooches too).

However since about 300AD this day was earmarked for the celebration of few Christian martyrs that may or may not have had much to do with love. Most notable Christian Saints who were honored on this day were Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. Anglican and Lutheran Churches have February 14 in their calendars as one of the feast days. The Eastern Orthodox Church also celebrates two such days – July 6 to honor a Roman priest named Valentine and also on July 13 in honor of Bishop Hieromartyr Valentine. February 14 was a feast day of Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints until its revision in 1969.

A similar day is celebrated in China called Qixi festival on the seventh day of seventh lunar month. Japan has Tanabata on July seventh that also has origins from its Chinese counterpart.

If you are eager to take advantage of this event to make a move on your sweetheart and hopefully get reciprocated (in other words get lucky) maybe you should thank Geoffrey Chaucer (in addition to Saint Valentine of course) who had made the first documented reference between the Saint Valentine’s Day and romantic love.

It was the year 1382. King Richard II of England was about to consume his matrimony to Ann of Bohemia held in Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t a popular merger for his subjects since it brought little financial benefits to England: in other words no dowry. The rumor was that Richard II in fact paid a big sum to her (Anne’s) brother to make his in-laws happy. The journalists and paparazzi of the late middle ages were also not very sympathetic to Ann. However, the King apparently had a very romantic heart (well… he and his newlywed were just 15 years old so no brainer there).

Richard II hired Chaucer to write a poem in honor of his union with Ann.

Chaucer composed his Parliament of Foules that drew parallels between human courting and the mating of birds. One of Chaucer’s stanzas decodes into contemporary English as - this Valentine’s Day every bird comes here to choose his mate.

Hence, the modern Valentine’s Day was born.

So, lovebirds all over the globe please rise up and greet February 14 with flowers, sweets and of course with a few poems. And if you are pretty positive that you are nearer to the third-base make sure to have in your person some other relevant paraphernalia too in case a home-run is written in your stars!

BTW, talking about poems: if you are not gifted at putting pen to paper, do not worry. You may not be an Emperor to hire a Geoffrey Chaucer to create a masterpiece but nowadays we do have the Internet that has a cornucopia of such materials at your fingertips.

But first, you will have to get by some busybodies, high-minded folks and few politicians (a.k.a. party poopers).

According to the director of UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Henry Ansgar Kelly, the Day of Love should be on May 3 and not on February 14 (see Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, Brill Academic Publishers, 1997). He says "…for most of the Northern Hemisphere, such Valentine’s Day staples such as fresh flowers and lovebirds just aren’t consistent with this time of year…" Kelly may think that February is still too cold and not a good time for birds to be mating in England. But, that assumption cannot be any further from the truth. Admittedly, I may be little bit too old for cold weather, but, anyone who had ever being in love knows that the weather should never be an impediment for lovebirds to come looking for mates.

Then there is this war on Saint Valentine’s Day declared from the East: The arguments against celebrating this day have their origins in religious, political and cultural dogmas.

The religious censures pronounced by more traditional sages stem from the belief that the amatory manifestation of affection is somehow a sin. This kind of thinking is not limited to Eastern religions but also to almost all other mainstream faiths from East, West, South, North or from the middle. In fact most of the present day values on the subject of etiquette in physical affection, claimed by most easterners as their own, were introduced to them by western missionaries when they were aggressively converting the natives to Christianity.

Interestingly, there was a rich custom of celebrating erotic love in ancient India personified by Kamadeva. Unfortunately, by the Middle Ages this tradition was lost.

Political types with nationalistic predilections consider this as another instance of an adulteration of traditional third-world cultures by western influence. Their criticisms have an economic component stemming from the belief that one of the ways that neocolonialism exploits countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America is by commercialization of all aspects of their lives including love. They see the greeting cards, gifts, flowers, etc. are nothing but hollow gestures performed by youth because they were brainwashed by exploitative market-based economic campaigns.

The cultural concerns voiced by less sophisticated politicians and others with somewhat narrow worldviewarealso very similar to that of religious objections albeit with a weaker foundation than religious reasoning. The thinking here is that the erotic display of affection (publicly in this case) is somehow inconsistent with traditional eastern values especially if it is exhibited by rural youth. Strangely the broadcasters of this school of thought would not hesitate to give a clearance to behind the closed doors affections, even with some leeway towards certain depravities, depending on the power and status of the partakers (i.e.powerful politicians are given a pass).

Enough of these political gibberish, right?

It is difficult (and useless too) to make a case for or against laying aside a day to celebrate love. Maybe we should end this article with the fable of Saint Valentine of Rome that would hopefully be some food for thought.

It was the year 270 A.D. when the Roman Emperor Claudius II presumed that falling in love and getting married, (and subsequently making babies), is not good for his soldiers. Obviously he did not want to make his tough army mellow by allowing them to become husbands or fathers. Of course that was not very nice of the Emperor to take away that ultimate bliss from the very people who would get maimed by fighting on his behest. This also reminds us of one such mean-spirited person from Sri Lanka who instituted a similar edict in early 1980s on his young boy and girl brigades but could not follow the same decree for himself. Anyway, those Roman soldiers had a liberator in the name of Valentine. He secretly performed Christian weddings for soldiers. One of the lovely gestures he did was cutting out hearts from parchment and giving those to soldiers as well as persecuted Christians to remind them of the love of God.

Saint Valentine was imprisoned for this treasonous act. It is said that the Emperor himself visited Saint Valentine in prison and attempted to convert him to Roman Paganism (talk about unethical conversions). Well… the word is that Saint Valentine politely declined and in turn tried to convert the Emperor himself to Christianity.

He evidently failed in that effort and was executed.

But not before he performed a miracle that gave eyesight to the blind daughter of his jailer (think about the compassion he extended not only to his followers but also to his enemies too).

The night prior to his execution he wrote the first ever Valentine’s card to that lady signing it as "from your Valentine."

I think Saint Valentine, whether he was real or imaginary, was one nice person worth remembering.

PS. In case if you couldn’t get lucky with your sweetheart on February 14 please do not lose heart. According to Professor Kelly from UCLA you should get a second chance on May 3.

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