Each year when February 14th rolls around, I wish everyone a "Happy Valentine’s Day." But this year when I thought about the upcoming holiday, I started to wonder: what does a celibate priest have to do with love?
That question sent me on a long Google mission to learn the origin of the holiday. I mean, VD day had to have some calendar significance; why else would a day that celebrates love be scheduled for icy February as opposed to during a warm and sunny month far more conducive to romance like June?
What I learned was like with many holidays, this one is based on legend with a long and conflicting history. It’s not all love and roses after all!
The origins of Valentine's Day started in the 3rd century with the assassination of a priest, Father Valentine, by the supreme order of Roman Emperor Claudius II. Valentine's beheading was brutal and bloody. Hardly the kind of thing that awakens our intimate thoughts, feelings, or desires!
Here's why he was killed: The ancient Romans believed in mythical gods, but in the 3rd century, Christianity was on the rise, and this new religion came into direct and often violent conflict with the Roman order. Anyone who was caught supporting the Christian Church was cruelly persecuted.
Valentine, a devout Catholic priest, evangelized and administered to the persecuted, giving comfort and then baptizing them into the new religion- an act that was against Roman law.
While Wikipedia and other Google sites are vague on the exact circumstances that led to Valentine's demise, it is reasonable to assume that Valentine disrupted a ritual (Lupercalia), and the very act that made him a saint (he is said to have cured a Roman woman of blindness) likely raised the ire of Claudius II, who regarded him as an outlaw.
So what does a drunk and outraged Emperor whose party is disrupted do?
Emperor Claudius II would have been celebrating the pagan ritual of Lupercalia (and likely drunk and nude as was the custom). The practice was to sacrifice a goat or dog and take some of the hide to use as a whip on young naked females, believing this would make the females fertile. Oh, those naughty Romans knew how to throw a party!
Now imagine Claudius’s annoyance when he received notice that Valentine was Christianizing not only his city but guests at this very party. Regardless of the sanctity of the festival holiday, he declared that Valentine was to be killed at once.
Valentine’s death did not go unrecognized by the church though it took a while. In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentines Day to both commemorate Valentine for the miracle he performed as well as to celebrate that he converted many Romans to Christianity.
This history is all fine and well, but still, a day dedicated to St. Valentine doesn't explain the current day's intent or that loving feeling Valentine’s is about.
In fact, February 14 held little significance until the 13th century when writer and poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote the poem "Parliament of Fowls." In it, he describes a conference of birds choosing their mates and associating the procedure to "seyns Valentine Day."
The poem became famous throughout Europe and Britain where the aristocracy and nobility, enamored by the glamour of naturalistic mate selection, adopted the poem into their courting practices.
And that's how, to this day, gifts, signs of affection, and amorous acts are observed to celebrate.
The holiday has come a long way. I'll bet you didn’t know that it was a writer who reframed a day of religious observance to one of love and romance! From orgy, to prayer, to gifts of affection. I’d say that is evolution at its best.
Every writer influences us in one way or another. Chaucer forever changed how we observe a day originally dedicated to saintly recognition. But writers throughout the ages influence how we think and act.
While Chaucer’s poem softened and glamourized the commemoration of a brutal death, history has taught us that the world continues to be a harsh place. There are always powerful people who prioritize their agenda over the masses. Fortunately, there are as many brave writers who speak up to that power. They have taken on the responsibility of exposing truths. Their words have the power to influence and change, not always as profoundly as Chaucer’s, but in nonetheless subtle and enduring ways.
Examples of Writers Who Influence
The works of Mark Twain, born in 1835, challenged American identity, a hypocritical society professing morality but practicing something completely opposite: injustice and racism. Twain highly criticized slavery. His novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, emphasized loyalty and friendship. His writings likely influenced the start of the civil rights movement. The underlying themes of his stories continue to have an impact through today.
H G Wells (1866 -1946) was a writer before his time. He wrote, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. These were all unimaginable concepts at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. He wrote of early industrial machinery, nuclear weapons, and the airplane, changing the staunch narrow-minded thinking and attitudes of British society, concepts that later spread to the Americas.
Lastly, now in her eighties, Margaret Atwood is a major literary influencer. The winner of many prestigious awards, including the Booker and Giller prizes, her writing has a strong voice for feminism and environmentalism. For me, her most impactful quote is, “A word, after a word, after a word is a power.” Even in twenty-first century first-world countries, women are still thin on power to make major decisions. In a world still largely dominated by men, she stares down the self-serving priorities of corporate and political elite. In my opinion, if this lady ruled the world, things would be different – better.
It is not only the famous writers who exert influence. Everything we read from all writers impacts our thinking. My novels address themes of injustice with underlying stories of attraction and love. Have I been influenced along the way? Of course.
Thank you, Chaucer. I write of the struggle to survive against political forces gone wrong and how family prevails when they combine forces to fight against a dangerous and corrupt world.
Happy Valentine’s Day.