How the least-favourite holiday of single folks came to be
By Alex Stanton, Staff Writer
Love is in the air at our fine institution. Not only because February’s most prolific holiday is upon us quite shortly, but also because I see relatively tame public displays of affection regularly. Quick pecks on the lips, handholding, and even something as simple as two intimate people transfixed by the conversation, smiling at one another—seeing all of these things, and experiencing them myself, just puts a big smile on my face. Call me idealistic to a fault, but l love to see others happy and in love, simply because after a few years of nothing but unhealthy, meaningless relationships, I now consider myself very happy and in love.
I personally disagree with the idea that Valentine’s Day is the yearly culmination of the love you have for your significant other (especially so early in the year); that said, the history of the holiday is rather complicated. Perhaps you’ll find that knowing where these traditions come from will make chocolates, love letters, and dinner dates mean even a little bit more. However, there’s a lot of ambiguity and confusion in terms of the man himself, Saint Valentine, who lived during the third century in Rome and inspired his eponymous day.
According to a combination of loose evidence and possibly exaggerated legends and myth (95 per cent the latter), Saint Valentine was a Roman Catholic priest during the two-year reign (268-270) of Roman emperor Claudius II—a time when Christians were rather looked down upon. Claudius II, though an emperor for an extremely short time, had a very successful career in the military department. To keep that up, he went ahead and banned young men from marrying in Rome. He saw women as nothing more than a distraction to his army of bloodthirsty bachelors. He, logically, wanted his men to keep their focus off of the opposite sex and have them totally invested in grievous bodily harm and murder.
Saint Valentine made the brave decision to defy the emperor’s new law, and in the name of the Catholic Church, began uniting the young lovebirds of Rome in holy matrimony. In a society where polygamy was not only permitted but the norm, the patron saint of love believed that marriage was the most sacred bond possible between two people. When exactly the inevitable happened is lost to history, but eventually, Saint Valentine was caught by Claudius II and the Romans, and was unceremoniously tortured and beheaded. In a not-so-conclusively proven sentiment, it’s generally said that the aforementioned execution happened on February 14.
While this man obviously changed many lives for the better, his name didn’t become synonymous with love until the 14th century, right around the time legendary poet Geoffrey Chaucer was in the middle of writing “The Canterbury Tales” and singlehandedly altering the entire English language. One of his works, a love poem called “Parlement of Foules,” associates the feast of Saint Valentine with romance. Translated from old English, “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when all the birds of every kind that men can imagine come to choose their mates.”
As you can imagine, it’s entirely possible that there were multiple references to love and Saint Valentine in writings before “Parlement of Foules.” Whether or not Chaucer deserves credit for basically originating the modern idea of Valentine’s Day is a question that will likely never be answered. If there are any references that pre-date Chaucer’s, we can safely consider them lost to time.
England, Chaucer’s home country, started the tradition of gifts and love notes (the former during the 1600s, the latter during the 1700s). Specialty cards made for Valentine’s Day were a product of the early-mid 19th century, at which point they crossed the pond from England to America and became a tradition on both sides of the prime meridian. Over the course of the rest of the century, Valentine’s cards would fluctuate greatly in popularity. Post-Civil War was a particularly good time to be in the specialty card business, but shortly after that they took a massive nosedive in popularity until the 1920s, when Valentine’s Day as we know it today was finally set in stone. It’s not quite Batman-level in terms of origin stories, but Saint Valentine is pretty impressive: breaking a bunch of laws for completely selfless reasons, at the risk and eventual sacrifice of his own life.