Valentinus seems to have been popular name in Roman times — and perhaps also an unlucky one, since there seem to have been number of Christian martyrs with that name. It isn’t clear which one of them gives us the celebration that we mark today, those of us who remain romantic, anyway. The most popular account is that such a person was sent to jail for performing marriages for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. He also looked after Christians, during the period they were persecuted. That would place him at anywhere in the first three centuries AD, and just about anywhere in the Roman Empire, since the persecution didn’t just occur in Rome.
The crucial element of the story is that he is supposed to have healed the daughter of one of his jailers, to whom, before his execution, he wrote a farewell letter ‘from your Valentine’. The story suggests that he and the daughter had something going, and a ‘valentine’ has become the generic word for a statement of romantic attachment given on one particular day in the year.
It is neither a public holiday nor an important religious occasion, though it is an official feast day for the Church of England, and for Lutherans as well. As far as can I ascertain, it is not an exceptional day within the Roman Catholic Church. But it has been a popular day for a long time, since at least the day of Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century), and by the 15th century it had become the occasion on which lovers acknowledged each other with gifts like flowers and sweets, and particularly by writing to each other in a stylised way. It was the notes they wrote that were called ‘valentines’, and today we use greeting cards — as well as offer stylised gifts: heart shapes, doves, cupids and arrows all abound.
In Europe and America the day has been popular since well into the 19th century, and having been in Ottawa on one such February Day (minus 30C outside, as I recall) I was astonished by the prevalence of the St Valentine’s Day symbols in almost every shop. It seemed to be taken as seriously as Thanksgiving below the border.
Perhaps we are just more laid-back in Australia, but I don’t recall any particular celebration of St Valentine’s Day in my youth, just as I don’t recall any particular celebration of Father’s Day. Mother’s Day I do remember, and since our mother was the only female in a house with a father and three sons she was indeed made much of. We owe both of the former celebrations to assiduous commercial enterprise — just as is the case in Singapore, where Christmas is also made much of, with imitation falling snow as well.It seems to me that what has caused the rise of St Valentine’s Day as an important marker is growing wealth and the apparent need to spend it. As with Mother’s Day, you might argue that acknowledging your love, and your mother, is something that should happen every day, not left to one day in the year. Now that we have a particular day, you feel that not to be doing so on the chosen day is to suggest that you don’t acknowledge her at all!
My memory of Mother’s Day is that she had breakfast in bed, and we boys did as many of her tasks that were available to us before we went to school, or maybe it was a Sunday, and the activity went on during the day. What to do on St Valentine’s Day?
Well, we are taking a picnic meal, with bubbly, to the National Carillon where we will sit an enjoy the end of the day in a beautiful spot, and listen to the bells as the carillonist plays a romantic program — I did say that I remain a romantic!