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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

Note: This originally appeared on the editorial page of the Valley City Times-Record Valentine's Day weekend edition.

“Love is a condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
Robert Heinlein

Years ago around this time of year, when I was teaching English in the Warsaw Berlitz School, I asked a middle-aged Polish gentleman if he was going to buy a Valentine for anyone.

“It's an American holiday, not Polish,” he said, “so I don't celebrate it.”

“You'll learn to,” I replied. “The ladies like it. And besides, it's not American.”

And of course, it's not originally American. It is celebrated on Feb. 14 all over the western Christian world, with odd exceptions like Poland until recently.

But nobody knows exactly when it started, or who Valentine really was. At one time the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints had 11 St. Valentines, of whom at least two were associated with Feb. 14, Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. Both were martyred in the early years of the Christian era.

Though there was no early association with romance in the early biographies of the saints, by the fourteenth century a legend grew up about Valentine of Rome.

St. Valentine is known to have been martyred in 269 A.D., the last year of the reign of the Emperor Claudius II. Legend has it that Claudius, in need of soldiers, forbade young men to get married, believing they would be less willing to go to war if they had the comforts of a wife and family at home. Valentine defied the edict by secretly marrying young lovers. When he was caught at it, he was first imprisoned, then executed.

The legend further states that while imprisoned, he healed his jailer's daughter of some illness, and she promptly fell in love with him. On the eve of his martyrdom he wrote a love-note to her signed, “From your Valentine.”

There was by the way, nothing improper about this. Celibacy was not made mandatory for clergy until the Second Lateran Council in 1139.

In the year 1400 a “High Court of Love” was established in Paris (where else?) to deal with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were chosen by women based on a poetry reading contest.

The tradition of courtly love was an idealization of the ideals of chivalric romance, whereby a knight was inspired by the object of his affections to live up to the high ideals of chivalry and become the best person he could be.

Later the radical idea developed that a man's romantic ideal might even be the woman he was married to. Though considered scandalous at the time, the idea of a love match eventually caught hold.

The first surviving Valentine is a fifteenth century poem sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

The custom of sending Valentine cards began in the nineteenth century in England, and established in America by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts in 1847. Today the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates a billion Valentines a year are sent world-wide.

And the holiday is indeed spreading. Though many other cultures have days celebrating amity between the sexes, the tradition of sending cards, flowers, and chocolates on Feb. 14 is spreading beyond the western world.

Singapore, South Korea and China have all had booming sales of Valentine gifts in recent years.

Recent reports have it that the demand for roses for young men to send to young ladies is skyrocketing in Pakistan, in spite of being declared “haram” (forbidden) by the fundamentalist Muslim clergy.

In Saudi Arabia, the sale of Valentine items was banned by the religious
police, and shops were ordered to remove all red items last February. Nonetheless, there was a huge black market in roses and wrapping paper.

Which really goes to show, “Amor omnia vincit” (Love conquers all.)

Happy Valentine's Day!


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