In a plastic bucket beside the counter sat a dozen roses, each one individually wrapped, slightly faded, but with their heads held firmly erect in the stiff plastic. Each one would doubtless be bought and, given their garage location, probably as an afterthought, along with the milk and petrol, and taken home to a loved one as a token. For many, that would be the extent of their expression of devotion for another year. For many recipients, it would mean the world. It was a sad sight.
On the 14th of February, across the western world, florists, jewellers and confectioners make a commercial killing, as lovers and hopeful romantics celebrate St Valentine’s Day. Few of us are immune from interest in this date. Some pay court and show their hearts to a loved one, some stand firmly in the camp that sees the celebration simply as a money-making scam, while many believe that one day a year should not be the only time love is shown to another. Whatever stance you take, the chances are that you have a strong opinion about the day.
We know little of either St Valentine or the origins of the celebration. The legend of the saint seems to be drawn from three separate lives, all sharing a remarkably similar dénouement. In all three, the good Valentine is held in captivity and heals the sight of a blind girl, impressing his captor, whose daughter she is. Some versions go on to say that the man converted to Christianity after the miracle, smashing pagan idols and freeing slaves. Another story says that Valentine was arrested for marrying Christian couples and preaching his faith… both illegal activities in the early days of the Church. Even so, it is related that he earned the respect of the Roman Emperor Claudius… until Valentine tried to convert him too. In the typical fashion of such stories, the saint refused to deny his faith and suffered the threatened fate… he was stoned and when this failed to kill him, was finally beheaded.
The date of his martyrdom became his feast day… and the day when, for some reason, we choose to celebrate romance. Valentine eventually became the patron saint of beekeepers as well as engaged couples, happy marriages and love, and he is called upon to help fainting, plague and epilepsy. He was never officially canonised by the Church, but became a saint by popular acclamation and so was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969. His religious feast day continues to be kept locally, while the legend of his name is celebrated worldwide, with few knowing or caring about the reality or the origin behind the custom.
For a long time the general consensus was that St Valentine’s Day was a convenient replacement for the pagan rites of Lupercalia. The name of the god, Lupercus, derived from the word for ‘wolf’ and he equated to Faunus, a Pan-like shepherd-god, whose image once stood in the Lupercal… the cave where the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twins who founded Rome. The rites were ancient, probably pre-dating Imperial Rome, and connected to the fertility of spring. It was not an uncommon practice to supplant such ancient festivals with something more palatable to the Church, allowing traditional celebrations and holidays to become approved holy days…
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