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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Saint Valentine is the Reason for the Season

St. Valentine's Day 
496 A.D.

St.Valentine's Day
2011 A.D.

So just how exactly did we get from a Fifth Century early Christian martyr symbolizing romance to a  21st century shapeshifting robot symbolizing romance?

Let's begin by pointing out that Valentine's Day is actually St.Valentines Day. I say that not to be pedantic (okay, well maybe a little) but because I find myself running into an increasingly large amount of people who are not aware of the holiday's religious origins. It's kinda like what the Christian right fears that Christmas will become one day . Interestingly, most of the War-on-Christmas commentators seem to have given up completely on the overly commercialized and secularized Feast of St.Valentine.  It may have something do with the fact that Saints and their feasts are primarily an obsession of the Catholics. Catholicism is only just a notch above Satanism, after all.

Just like Christmas, Easter, Halloween, St. Patrick's Day and anything else that was supposed to be fun, the nuns teaching religion in my Catholic elementary school tried to steer it all back to Catholicism. They told us about a Saint Valentine who was locked up by bad Roman people. From prison, the persecuted saint would write messages to his friends and family singed "your Valentine".  They were the first ever Valentine's Day cards. Yes. That is how they explained it to us. And, oh yeah, later the bad Roman people cut St.Valentine's heart out just because he was Christian and they were bad people.

Chocolate hearts, yum!

Either the nuns were a little off or I'm just not remembering what they taught us very well (those of you who know me well are more likely to accept the first explanation over the second). Turns out that there at least three different "official" Christian stories about St.Valentine. Each story involves a different version of St.Valentine living in the early days of Christianity.

The first St.Valentine was a priest in Rome circa the Fifth century A.D.  This particular St.Valentine secretly married couples at a time when the Roman Empire had outlawed marriage. The Romans enacted this completely reasonable piece of legislation because too many young men were using marriage as a means of avoiding military service. Married men were exempt from being drafted at that time so getting married had suddenly become very popular, particularly among young men.  Holy Vietnam War era!

Now I ain't no Roman emperor or nuthin' but wouldn't it make a lot more sense to just change the law exempting married men from military service? Isn't outlawing marriage altogether kind of a complicated way to go? And what did the powerful bridal industry lobby have to say about this draconian legislation?

Anyhoo...the bad Romans locked Valentine up for marrying people in secret. I'm not really sure what the plan was with the secret marriages. Such marriages couldn't possibly ever be legally recognized. So the guys would just end up the army anyway.  Well, I guess i ain't no Christian martyr neither.

The second version places St.Valentine as a bishop in Turni in roughly the same era. He got locked up for "helping Christians" and then fell in love with his jailer's daughter. It was that last part that this St.Valentine ended up getting executed for.  That version of the story makes slightly more sense. Well, at least it does until you start thinking about what the jailer's daughter was doing hanging out with dad at work so often...or that a Christian bishop at that time would most certainly have to had taken a vow of chastity.

Some accounts of the story combine the first two into one big epic story of St.Valentine. The combination of the two accounts doubles the amount of plot holes.

In the third version of St.Valentine was martyred in the then Roman province of Africa. That story is a little light on the details, thus making it much harder to pick apart.

In every version, St.Valentine was martyred on February 14th. What are the chances? And, oh yeah, no version features the Romans cutting Valentine's heart out. Ahem. Sister Nancy?

Here is a news story on the history of St.Valentine that nicely encapsulates the whole deal:

Well, that's one take there anyway, folks.

There are other less reverential versions. Just like Christmas, Easter and Halloween, St.Valentine's Day is thought to go back to an ancient pagan ritual.

On February 14th, the Romans had this thing called Juno Februata. The ritual was named for the Queen of the Roman goddesses who also doubled as the goddess of marriage. It involved women putting their name in a box and then men drawing the names out of the box. The two randomly selected people would then be a couple for the rest of the celebration. And, really, who hasn't been to one of those parties?

After a short break, the festivities would pick up once again on February 15th. That ritual was known a Luperaclia. This time around, the men went down into a sacred grotto, killed a goat, donned its skin and then would proceed to run around hitting the woman with small whips. And, really, who hasn't been to one of those parties?

Both of these rituals were meant to celebrate life, marriage and fertility. Ya think?

They are, of course, are just the Roman variations; it is believed that earlier versions or similar rituals date back even further than the Romans or even the Greeks.

Doing a Google image search for this kinda stuff is..um...really interesting.

Not surprisingly, the church had issues with Juno Februata and Luperaclia. So like Christmas, Easter and Halloween, they attempted to smooth it all over it a nice and devout Christian holiday.

It was not until the 14th century that anyone put the sex...er...romance back into St.Valentine's Day. It was all thanks to Geoffrey Chaucer of Canterbury Tales fame. In the 14th century and earlier it was believed that birds mated on February 14 (how weird is it that all this stuff happens on the same day?).  Chaucer made reference to the avian mating connection in his 1832 book, Parlement of Foules, writing "For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."

The book also featured an illustration of two birds, um  "mating", I guess. Hence the expression "love birds" was born (now if only I could figure out where the hell The Cure got "Love Cats" from).

Written "Valentines" (as they became known) start turning up around 1400. Exchanging paper Valentines as gifts becomes particularly popular in England, where everyone at the time was, apparently, pretty cheap. By the 1800's, factories started churning out Valentine's Day cards. It was the beginning of the end for the good saint.  In the early 20th century, capitalism had got its mitts on the whole Valentine thing and there was no going back.

It is unclear where and when the tradition of children exchanging Valentine's Day cards originated. According to my mom's memories, it dates back at least to the 1930's.  This card, circa 1940, also serves to back that up:

I don't get this joke.

In the wake of widespread secularization and commercialism, there are, apparently, an increasing number of people who who know little or nothing about the origins (religious or otherwise) of Valentine's Day. Even the church and most religious leaders have pretty much completed abandoned St.Valentine.

St.Valentine's Day has not been an official religious holiday for almost 40 years now.  The Catholic Church dropped the feast of St.Valentine from the Catholic Calendar of Saints in 1969. Quite possibly, they did so after they saw this:

So there you have it kids. How Valentine's Day made its way from ancient sexual ritual to arcane Christian martyr to Optimus Prime and Peter Parker.

There are still many unanswered questions:

What about the candy?

The chocolate hearts?

The flowers?

The naked flying baby archer?

Check back with me next Valentine's Day.

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