2006-02-09 / Sam Bari

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand

Valentine’s Day — Things ain’t what they used to be
By Sam Bari

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
Valentine’s Day — Things ain’t what they used to be

Have you ever noticed how we generally take the less significant holiday celebrations for granted?

We more or less go with the flow, and if a good time is to be had, we make the best of it, party hard, then go about our business until we have another excuse to celebrate.

Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays. Ask almost anybody about why we celebrate V-Day, and you can safely bet that the person you ask won’t know how or why it started. To illustrate my point, let’s take a little peek at why we really celebrate the socalled lover’s holiday.

First of all, the date is wrong. The celebration that was the cause for Valentine’s Day was its precursor, and it was celebrated on the Ides of February, or Feb. 15 on the Roman calendar.

The original holiday was the “Festival of Lupercus,” and it was indeed a lover’s celebration of sorts. Lupercus was the Roman god of agriculture and shepherds, and the holiday was a pagan celebration commemorating the rite of passage for young men into manhood.

On this day, local teenage girls wrote their names on pieces of paper and dropped them into a box. Eligible young men drew their names from the box in a kind of lottery. The girl assigned to the young man who drew her name would be his mate for the rest of the year.

Often, couples would stay together after the year’s end and marriage would ensue. If a relationship were less than successful, the couple would part company and try again in the next lottery — not a bad arrangement. It gave young people an opportunity to test the waters, so to speak, and the penalty was not too severe. Why the festival honored the god of agriculture and shepherds is a bit of a mystery, but the logic of the day prevailed and it probably made sense at the time.

The yearly celebration continued for 800 years, until A.D. 270 during the reign of Claudius II. This Roman emperor purported that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families.

Consequently, he strongly supported the pagan ritual. The church, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the Festival of Lupercus was much too pragmatic and far too much fun to be in keeping with their ideology that suggested the road to heaven was paved with suffering, guilt, and penance. As was probably expected, Pope Gelasius fervently objected to the coveted celebration.

His objection was not well received either by the men involved or by Claudius. One popular scenario says that Gelasius sent a bishop by the name of Valentine to marry men in secret, thereby defying Claudius’ edict.

When Claudius found out about Valentine, he first tried to convert him to paganism. But Valentine reversed the strategy, and tried instead to convert Claudius to the ways of the church. When Valentine failed, Claudius II stoned and beheaded him, making the bishop a martyr.

However, Valentine was imprisoned before his beheading. During this time, he fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailer. I am not certain if this was acceptable behavior for bishops at the time, but affairs of the heart were certainly not foreign to the clergy. Valentine’s love for the young lady, and his great faith, allegedly healed her from blindness before his, shall we say, untimely death. The event was purported to be a minor miracle. His last decree was a signed farewell message to her, “From your Valentine.”

The phrase has been used on his celebrated day ever since.

The legends surrounding the correct St. Valentine are murky at best. I say “correct” because there were apparently three priests named Valentine, two of which were martyrs. History is not clear about which Valentine is the true St. Valentine honored by the modern celebration. Despite the expense of the holiday for men, it is interesting to note that 85 percent of the one billion Valentine’s Day greeting cards sent annually are purchased by women.

Now I’m not saying you should approach your significant other with the suggestion of celebrating the lover’s holiday the old fashioned way by indulging in the rituals of the Festival of Lupercus.

I believe experiencing a more traditional Valentine’s Day celebration, as we know it, would be the wiser choice, but it would be less expensive than Cupid shooting you through the wallet with a love-laden arrow.

Unfortunately, the proper way to celebrate holidays is often part of a system that is minimally difficult to understand.

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