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Saints, Romans, a grumpy author and happy Valentines



Published: Mon, February 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Scripps Howard News Service: English author R. Chambers, writing in the 1883 edition of his "The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities," observed of Feb. 14:

"Valentine's Day is now almost everywhere a much degenerated festival, the only observance of any note consisting merely of the sending of jocular anonymous letters ... and this confined very much to the humbler classes."

It is a good thing that R. does not have to get a Valentine's Day reservation on short notice to take Mrs. Chambers to dinner. He wildly misunderestimated the staying power of a day dedicated to candy, romance and other food.

And we don't "merely" send letters, anonymous or otherwise. We send 1 billion Valentine's Day cards, and all this for a celebration that has no real reason for existing outside of one human being's search for happiness with another. But that's reason enough.

Lupercalia misses the mark

As with so many of our holidays and celebrations, this one began with the Romans, the festival of Lupercalia. It involved the sacrifice of goats and playfully slapping people with bloody strips of goat hide. As it did with other pagan festivals, the early church skillfully co-opted Lupercalia and, in 498, it became St. Valentine's Day. (The Roman version wouldn't have lasted in any case. A Lupercalia card sounds like a reminder for an unpleasant medical procedure.)

There is also something of a mystery about St. Valentine; indeed, there appear to be two of them, both martyred on Feb. 14 and both around the same time late in the third century. One was a priest who, in violation of an imperial decree, married young Romans of military draft age; the other a priest who cured the daughter of his jailer and left behind a note, "With love from your Valentine." Both were said to have been martyred in various unpleasant ways.

The Roman Catholic Church could find no proof of any of this, and St. Valentine, whichever one he was, was dropped from the roster of active saints, so to speak, in 1969.

Valentine's Day, with its intimation that spring is near and that love and life will begin anew, is too good to lose just because its back story doesn't hold up and a grumpy Victorian felt that it had run its course. There should be a day when we are enjoined simply to tell someone we love them, although candy, flowers and dinner are also nice.

Happy Valentine's Day!




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