I am no anti-Cupid. Let me make it obvious that I love love. After all, I am a pseudo-philosopher, a sometime poet and an avid consumer of Victorian romance novels. But lately, I have felt disillusioned with the commercialization of Valentine’s Day.
Don’t get me wrong. I am the patron saint of little knick-knacks like stuffed animals, heart-shaped boxes and other cute figurines. One look at my dorm room, which is stuffed to the brim with baubles, would tell you this. However, the reason why I collect these decorations and gifts is because I think that – ideally – they should have substance.
February 14th has lost its substance. In my opinion, the whole month has just become an excuse to sell pink and red stuff without much reason at all. Where’s the passion, the joie de vivre?
Perhaps it is time to remember the history of Valentine’s Day in order to re-inject some substance into our celebration. The origins of Valentine’s Day are a tad murky, but are filled with intrigue and horror. To understand the holiday, we should look at its Catholic and pagan elements.
The Catholic Church recognizes three St. Valentines: what they each share in common is that they were beheaded by different Roman emperors. One St. Valentine was martyred for marrying men to their beloveds at a time when the Roman empire required young men to remain unmarried. The policy was implemented because the Romans believed single men were most capable of performing military services. Another St. Valentine was martyred for freeing prisoners from a jail. He was caught and arrested, but succeeded in converting the jailor’s family to Catholicism after miraculously healing the man’s daughter. Rumor has it that this St. Valentine was enamored with the jailor’s daughter, but that this romance was short-lived (after all, St. Valentine ends up losing his head). The third St. Valentine’s story has been lost – relatively little is known about him, and his story has likely been absorbed into the narrative accounts of the other St. Valentines. The Catholic Church has long celebrated the lives of these saints with a feast on February 14th.
In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I decided to combine this feast day with Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a Roman fertility festival that was usually celebrated during the month of February. To encourage fertility in young women, men would dress in loin cloths and gently whip women with hides of animals like goats and dogs. Unfortunately, when Pope Gelasius I combined Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia, we lost this gentle whipping tradition.
I think we can bring back this tradition in a fun, modern way–without diminishing the importance of the Catholic Church. As Valentine’s Day is a celebration not just of romantic love, but of affection generally, we should encourage everyone to playfully whip each other with towels to show signs of affection, the way teenagers do in a locker room. Valentine’s Day would be much more fun–and substantive–if it became a frenzied, international game of towel-tag.
Further, the Valentine’s Day knick-knacks could be kitschy and substantive if they included a little more beheading. In this way, they could hearken back to all three St. Valentines’. Instead of little stuffed bears kissing each other, we should buy little bears with removable heads that say such things like: “I would die for you!”
Despite the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, I do think the holiday is quite nice. I am always cheered to see everyone decorate with great zeal in celebration of love. While I think we are not realizing the full pagan and Catholic potential of Valentine’s Day, with all its gore and ritual, I still think the holiday is worth engaging in.
Remember to engage in some friendly towel whipping this Valentine’s Day!