My wife and I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day at all, but if people want to use it as an excuse to be extra romantic for a day then that’s great. If the card companies get to make a bundle of money out the day, that’s just business. If some local restaurants can make some extra bookings by running Valentine’s Day specials, then that’s a handy boost to their livelihood right there. No one really loses (unless you honestly think sending that Valentine’s Day card to Anne Hathaway is going to pay off big time).
What interests me more about the Day is the brilliant disconnect between its sappy romanticism and the massively violent connotations it has as an historical event. It’s a bit like the UK’s Guy Fawkes Night, in which we celebrate the fact that a group of conspirators and several large barrels of gunpowder *didn’t” blow the House of Lords to smithereens by lighting large bonfires and blowing hundreds of tiny gunpowder-fuelled fireworks to smithereens. We also traditionally throw a stuffed mannequin, touchingly referred to as a ‘guy’, onto the fire (even though the real life Guy Fawkes wasn’t burned: he was hung, drawn and quartered – either way: take that, fake Guy Fawkes!)
Death, often violent, and commemorative events seemed to be inextricably linked. Whether through coincidence or bizarrely dark planning, February 14 marks the date, in 1929, that five members of Chicago’s North Side Gang were lured to a garage, lined up against a wall and shot to death. Naturally they weren’t just delicately despatched with a bullet or two: they were turned into burger meat with something approaching 70 machine gun rounds and a couple of shotgun blasts just for good measure. You don’t see that mentioned on the Hallmark cards.
The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre is, of course, just a crime of opportunity: various machinations and circumstances happened to line up on February 14 and so the event has borrowed the St Valentine’s Day label ever since. The story of the man who gave the day his name in the first place is arguably more interesting, and possibly more brutal.
The ‘real’ Saint Valentine
The following is all taken from Wikipedia by the way. While the exact history is unknown, and the stories therefore vary, Saint Valentine – who back in the year 273 was going by the far more ordinary name of Valentinus – had either the misfortune or poor judgement to be a Christian back in Rome. As we all know Christians weren’t very popular in Rome, except with lions, so he Valentinus was already on some fairly shaky ground. Eventually he was arrested by Emperor Claudius (not sure if that’s Claudius of ‘I’ fame or not…) but luckily the emperor took a liking to his prisoner. However, apparently one to look a gift horse square in the mouth, Valentinus unwisely pushed his luck and tried to get Claudius to convert to Christianity. Claudius decided not to take up the offer on that occasion and, for his efforts, Valentinus was sentenced to be beaten with clubs and stones and then beheaded. Not the best outcome for Valentinus, unless of course his goal all along was to have a whole day named after him – in which case: score!
Typically things get a bit vague after that. Why did we decided to appropriate the date of Valentinus’ brutal death, not to mention his name, as an excuse to send each other cards and flowers? No one really knows. One possible clue is that Valentinus was arrested for performing wedding ceremonies for Christians. There are also suggestions that Valentine’s Day was set up to replace the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia: switch paganism for Christianity, and fertility with marriage and you have a much easier transition than, say, replacing Lupercalia with ‘wear a fez to work’ day.
So, next time you send or receive a Valentine’s Day card why remember that you’re marking the death of a man who gave his life so that Christians could live happily ever after. Or the death of a man who was too dumb to give out and realise when he was onto a good thing. Or the death of a man who was willing to die for his beliefs. Or, most likely, something else entirely. That’s history for you.
p.s. – apparently Saint Valentine’s head is kept in a church in Dublin … again, you don’t see that on the cards.