Skeptics are pretty certain Valentine’s Day is a sham, a holiday invented so merchants can capitalize and profit off romance.
If you know your history, you’ll know better. True, Valentine’s Day has little to do with the original saints named Valentine. (That’s right, saints; there’s more than one.) The day was co-opted by people who wanted to celebrate romance, and our culture’s many customs (some of them certainly unChristian) cropped up round it. The merchants didn’t really get into the act until the late 18th century.
There were several Christian martyrs named Valentine. Like most of the most ancient Christians, their stories are half true, half legendary, and all mixed together. We may never really know what’s true and what’s bunk; what happened to Bishop Valentinus of Terni, versus what happened to Presbyter Valentinus of Rome, or Valentinus of Raetia, or Valentinus of Genoa, or Valentinus the fifth-century hermit, or Valentinus of North Africa. If all you’re trying to do is argue, “There was so a real St. Valentine,” you’re quite right; but if you’re trying to argue, “And he did this,” well, he may not have.
Valentinus of Terni.
The martyr which tends to get most of the credit for most of the stories, is Valentinus of Terni. He’s the one who died on 14 Feburary, in the year 269. There are two main stories about him.
One is of a skeptical judge who said he’d believe in Jesus if Valentinus healed his daughter’s blindness. Once Valentinus did so, the judge and his whole household became Christians, destroyed their idols, and were baptized.
The other tells of Valentinus, once he was arrested for his Christianity, deciding to pull a Paul and go to Rome for trial, hoping to preach Jesus to the emperor. While he was in prison, he healed the blind and deaf daughter of his jailer, Asterius. Supposedly he wrote this girl a note, “from your Valentine,” which is where the idea of valentines came from. (I have my doubts Valentine’s miracle included supernaturally giving her the power to read, but that’s me.) The emperor, Claudius 2, kinda liked Valentinus; but apparently Valentinus came on too strong, and Claudius sentenced him to being beaten to death with clubs. And maybe beheaded. Valentinus was buried on the Via Flaminia.
Incidentally, Claudius 2 spent none of his reign in Rome. He was off fighting the Goths. But you know how myths can be. Centuries later, well-meaning Christians dug up Valentinius, and distributed his body parts to several churches in his honor. His flower-crowned skull is on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria, in Cosmedin, Rome.
Yeah, there are other myths. One is that Valentine had a lover, and would write love letters in between being horribly tortured in prison. Or that a fellow prisoner had a lover, for whom Valentine would make like Cyrano de Bergerac and wrote love notes. (And secretly slip into them some evangelism.) These stories are popular, and widely told, and none of them come from history: Again, were invented to explain where valentines came from, and make them look like legitimate customs for his feast day.
The romantic customs.
The first historical evidence we have of a romantic Valentine’s Day supposedly comes from a poem in 1382, Parlement of Foules (i.e. Parliament of Fowls) by Geoffrey Chaucer. Pardon the Middle English spelling.
- For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
- Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
- Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
- And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
- That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
- So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
- For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
- And right as Aleyn, in the Pleynt of Kinde,
- Devyseth Nature of aray and face,
- In swich aray men mighten hir ther finde.
- This noble emperesse, ful of grace,
- Bad every foul to take his owne place,
- As they were wont alwey fro yeer to yere,
- Seynt Valentynes day, to stonden there.
- Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
But there’s some debate as to which Valentine’s Day Chaucer was referring to. It’s unlikely birds would be mating in England in winter, so it’s more likely Chaucer meant St. Valentine of Genoa’s Day, which is in 2 May.
Next comes a letter in 1415 from Charles, duke of Orleans, referring to his wife as “my very sweet Valentine.” It appears Valentine became connected with courtly love—though William Shakespeare in Hamlet (Act 4, scene 5) makes it sound a lot less than courtly.
In any case Valentine’s Day wasn’t a commercial holiday till printers began to mass-produce Valentine cards in the 1780s. It took off in the United States in the 1840s. In the mid-1900s the cards were gradually supplemented with roses, chocolate, and diamond jewelry. Of course, other countries have their own traditions.
Does any of this have to do with any of the men for whom the day is named? Nah. It’s about romance. Sometimes Christians like to spin it so that it’s about Christian love… but obviously all the other kinds of love make their appearance as well.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating most things—whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, the day you get your income tax refund, the Super Bowl, or romance. The problem comes when you attach unrealistic expectations to it. That’s really easy to do when it comes to romance.
The biggest problem with romance is it’s not love. It’s a feeling of excitement and mystery which we’ve associated with love. Hopefully it’s grounded on actual love, but we know that’s often not the case. Both pagans and Christians confuse romance with love all the time. They develop romantic feelings for someone, figure it’s love, marry them… and once the excitement wears off and the mystery disappears, supposedly the “love” has gone away as well. But it was never truly there.
Many people are addicted to romance, and pursue these feelings of excitement, rather than the stability of a committed relationship. That’s why all their relationships inevitably fall apart. Once the romance wears off, they discover they have no patience for the other person. And love has patience. As the relationship dissolves, they’re unkind, ungentle; two behaviors which actual love practices. Love doesn’t fall apart, but romance regularly does.
Romance requires excitement and mystery. Those two feelings have to be manufactured. When they’re not, or not enough, whatever we’re doing is “not romantic.” That’s why one date might be romantic, but when you duplicate it—and the mystery, and some of the excitement, won’t be there—it may not be as romantic as before. Or romantic at all: There’s no newness, no novelty, no potential for the unexpected, no surprise. And if you don’t know the difference between romance and love, it can be very frustrating. (Especially if someone feels they’ve been genuinely loving, and put a lot of time into it.)
Romance frequently demands declarations of love. Usually in the form of grand gestures. Advertisers particularly want you to make these declarations with their products or services. They’ll try to convince people that no other product makes the same declaration—“a diamond is forever,” for example. But the excitement of a diamond will wear off just the same as anything.
Now, compare actual love.
Love has patience. Love behaves kindly. It doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion. It doesn’t draw attention to how great it is. It doesn’t exaggerate. It doesn’t ignore others’ considerations. It doesn’t look out for itself. It doesn’t provoke behavior. It doesn’t plot evil. It doesn’t delight in doing wrong: It delights in truth. It puts up with everything, puts trust in everything, puts hope in everything, survives everything. Love never falls down.
—Paul and Sosthenes,
Romance regularly does the opposite.
Straighten out the difference.
If you want to love your partner, you need to sort out the differences between love and romance, and make sure love is the priority.
Discuss your expectations with your partner. Because romance requires excitement, it tends to not be talked about, for fear of “ruining the surprise,” which isn’t romantic. But an even worse surprise is when you discover your loved one has a very different idea of romance. You consider it romantic; they consider it excessive or unrealistic. They consider it romantic; you consider it creepy or pervy. So talk it out. Do you share ideas and goals? Is one of you making too many adjustments to the other person’s expectations—and are you okay with that?
Celebrate romance all you like. But recognize romance has its shortcomings. Love is more important. Romance should never overrule love, or be used to justify any behaviors which lack love. If your loved one meets your expectations, enjoy the experience. And when your loved one doesn’t meet your expectations, forgive.