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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Christmas OnlineTM

About Saint Valentine's Day, from Family Christmas OnlineTM

    For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
    Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

Those words by Chaucer refer to a late medieval tradition that birds chose their mates by Saint Valentine's day of each year. They were written about 1343, over a thousand years after St. Valentine and two other saints with the same name were martyred. Surprisingly, they are the first documented connection between Saint Valentine's day and anything close to romantic love.

I know that's hard to believe today, because romance is about the only connection most people make with St. Valentine's Day today. Still, many folks have tried to "connect the dots" of that thousand-year gap between the saint and the way we celebrate his feast day today. Others have tried to pin the whole thing on pre-Christian fertility practices. So, a closer look at the saint and the history of his day wouldn't hurt anybody who wants to know if he or she is "doing St. Valentine's Day right."

Even when one of the St. Valentines is commemorated, as in this iconic image, no one is really sure what he did to link his legend with notions of romance. Click for bigger photo.Will the "Real" St. Valentine Please Stand Up? - The first source of confusion is that there are at least four Saint Valentines. According to the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia, three of them are commemorated on February 14th. Apparently, two of those three were martyred in the third century and buried near Rome. The ancient church set the feast of St. Valentine on February 14, because that is the day that one of those Valentines is supposed to have been buried.

Centuries later, a legend emerged that one of the St. Valentines was executed for performing wedding ceremonies for potential army recruits whom Emperor Claudius II had ordered to stay single. Other legends emerged about notes being passed to or from Valentine when he was in prison. Today, however, few church historians believe that there is any evidence to link those legends with either of the Valentines who was buried near Rome, or any other person, for that matter.

We do have reason to believe that all three of the St. Valentines who are honored on February 14 died because they refused to compromise their moral and spiritual principles during great persecution. If your name is Valentine, or Valentino, that's reason enough to hold your head high. When it comes to romance, though, you're on the same playing field with the rest of us.

Geoffry Chaucer, as he was imagined two centuries after his death.Will the Real St. Valentine's Day Please Stand Up? - To make it even more confusing, another Valentine's day, commemorating a fourth St. Valentine, was celebrated on May 2. In 1382, when Chaucer wrote that birds chose their mates on "Seynt Valentyne's day," he probably had the later date in mind (those lines appear in a poem commemorating a royal engagement that occurred on May 2). But the May 2nd feast of Valentine of Genoa wasn't as popular as the February 14th feast day, so most people in England associated Chaucer's lines with February 14.

The Pagans Have their Say - People who strive to find pagan roots in every "Christian" feast-day remind us that a few regional Roman-era cultures celebrated fertility rituals on or about February 15. The rituals included a sort of "spin the bottle" game using girl's names on bits of paper and a festival in which young noblemen ran naked through the streets hitting young women with sticks, while the local priest sacrificed goats and dogs.

Unfortunately for folks trying to connect those particular dots to modern St. Valentine's day, such ancient festivals are separated from the relatively modern "romantic" interpretation of "Seynt Valentyne's Day" by a thousand miles and nearly a thousand years.

Remember that Spring Came Even Before the Pagan Feasts - The truth is that it's hard to find a date in late winter or early spring without some history of pre-Christian fertility festivals somewhere. Do such coincidences prove that St. Valentine's Day is simply a stolen pagan tradition, as some claim?

Or do they really just show that every Northern civilization, ancient and modern, has recognized that in the spring, the birds mate, the flowers bloom, and "a young man's fancy turns"?

At any rate, complaining that Christians have usurped a pagan tradition would be an overstatement in this case. St. Valentine's Day, as it has been celebrated for the last seven centuries or so, isn't a religious holiday at all. It's a cross-cultural celebration of romance that happens to fall on the feast day of three saints who probably did nothing to merit the association (and who would certainly be appalled at some of the things that go on in their name today). (Guys, if you've read this far, this doesn't let you "off the hook.")

The Great Romantic Culture Shift

Most Westerners don't know that there is an even wider gap between St. Valentine and the modern celebrations of his day - a cultural gap. Modern notions of "romantic love" didn't actually become part of Western European culture until nearly nine centuries after the Valentines died. Honoring "love for loves' sake" largely began in the eleventh century, when French storytellers started composing stories about great lovers like Lancelot and Guenivere, or Tristram and Isolde. In these early precursors to modern soap operas, love was "best" when it was forbidden and doomed to end in tragedy. Even our word "romance" comes from the old stories - they were called "romanses" because they were originally written in Latin-based languages like French.

By the thirteenth century, both these "romances" and the concept of what we call romance today were firmly entrenched in Western Europe, and people were mimicking the lovers in the stories by sending each other love letters and "tokens of love."

Perhaps Chaucer's fourteenth-century lines about St. Valentines' Day contributed to a "perfect storm" that was already in the making. At any rate, soon after Chaucer's time, love letters and tokens began arriving on or about February 14. The recipients of these attentions came to be called "Valentines," probably because of the date more than any association with the saint. (Many of the associations people try to make today were popularized after Chaucer.)

Letters and Tokens Give Way to Cards and Gifts - Early Valentine cards often had layers of fancy die-cut paper lace, embossed card stock, and small colored images that were glued on separately. On this pre-1900 card, the embossed outer frame is one piece, the lacey inner frame is another piece, the embossed hearts are on another piece, and the birds and flowers are on another piece. And you thought scrapbooking was complicated. Click for bigger photo.In the mid-1800s, the letter-writing practice was beginning to fade, when it was revived in a different form - elaborate "store-bought" Valentine's Day cards that became available.

Today, school kids give each other Valentine cards, but "big people" usually reserve the best cards and gifts for their "beloved."

Does Valentine's Day "Put You Out?" - Modern men may complain that St. Valentine's day puts pressure on them to do something that is uncharacteristically romantic, but the people who have it the worst are probably the unattached. They may view the day as one more reminder of their state, or as one writer put it, "Singles Awareness Day."

Getting With the Program - Still, Valentine's Day is going to come whether you like it or not. And unlike Sweetest Day, which really was invented by candymakers to sell more candy during a slow part of the year, this is a legitimate cultural holiday that your loved ones have a right to expect you to respect. No, you don't have to buy into the DeBeers advertisements (that started about 1980) claiming that diamonds are the only way to celebrate. But some token of your appreciation would be nice. Esther Price is NOT a sponsor of this site. But they do make the best chocolate-covered cherries I've ever had. Click here to order online.

For Guys Only:

She puts up with you being a lug for 364 days a year; is it really too hard to try to come up with flowers, a thoughtful card, a small gift, and a meal out, and maybe even sitting through a chick flick and pretending you "get it"? You get extra points for anything that makes it look like you planned ahead, instead of just picking up a pizza and a "doghouse special" flower arrangement on your way home from work.

Niceness Counts - Actually a little more effort would be nice. Sure, you'd die for her, but will you start picking up after yourself? Also you should know that for many women who've been married a while, a clean house and empty sink can be a bigger "turn-on" than anything in the Victoria's Secret catalog.

What if You're Not Speaking to Each Other? - Okay you had a big blowup last week and you're not sure you want to do anything nice for her this week. You may be right in imagining that she'll throw your flowers in your face. But at times like these, the greatest gift you can give her is confidence that you'll love her even in the "rough patches." Besides, if you don't make the effort, you'll just have that much more ground to make up when you do get things straightened out.

Don't Forget the Chocolate - Finally, if you're even slightly tempted to skip the chocolate because she could stand to lose a few pounds, don't be stupid. Chocolate triggers a chemical in the female brain brain that somewhat simulates the feeling of being in love, and it contains another compound that improves your sense of wellbeing. No, it's not a love potion, but on Valentine's day, you probably need all the help you can get. Go for the dark stuff, if she likes it.

For Girls Only:

You may sometimes think you're being a little too hard on your guy, expecting him to go from lugnut to chevalier in one day. You're probably not being too hard, really. But remember to give points for effort, please. Most of the ones worth keeping are SO out of their comfort zone this time of year.

For Everybody:

Be nice to people, some of whom are having a rough day today for any number of reasons.

Remember the Unattached - No, you don't want to send the wrong signals to folks. But if you can find some way of doing something nice for them that's a good thing, even if it is small and unromantic. Examples:

  • Making heart-shaped cookies to take into work. (By the way, my favorite recipe for cut-out cookies is here.)

  • Using candy molds and coating chocolate to make "homemade" Valentine candies. Wrap them individually in plastic and tie with a red ribbon.

  • Do you really need to see these any bigger?  Sorry, we don't have a close-up.Buying a bulk amount of those little candy message hearts and dividing them into little bags that you tie with red ribbon.

On the other hand, don't put a bunch of unwrapped bulk candy into a bowl for people to reach into - remember, February 14 is also the height of flu season.

I realize, of course, that all of my suggestions above have to do with food. At least I can use the excuse that the tradition of giving candy for Valentine's Day goes back almost seven centuries. If you can think of other ways to help the unattached enjoy, or at least survive the holiday, please contact us, and we'll try to add it to the list.

Other Resources

  • For the Kids - If you have kids, the best Valentine's Day children's crafts ever are on Jan Brett's Valentine Selections" page:

  • Scroll down to see a list of our favorites.Chick Flicks - We've also begun a collection of our favorite "chick flicks." The Amazon links for them appear below. Our collection includes "chick flicks" for guys, if you can believe that.

Happy Valentine's Day - Thanks for stopping by. God grant you and your loved ones grace and a spirit of generosity and service this season.

Paul D. Race, Family Christmas Online

If you have any corrections, comments, or additions you would like to make about this article, please contact me and I will be glad to hear from you. God bless - Paul

Plan Ahead: Show your softer side by attaching one of these to the candy box.

On the other hand, in case you didn't plan ahead, I've added the link for an "on-demand" instant download of each flic.

A non-supernatural retelling of the fairy tale, with an empowered heroine and lots of entertainment value. Drew Barrymore and Angelica Huston (the wicked stepmother) shine.
Also available as:
Instant Download
My family's overall favorite chick flick. Sandra Bullock and the ever-understated Bill Pullman make a combination that seems unlikely and inevitable at the same time.
Also available as:
Instant Download
Nobody does it better. Emma Thompson's brilliant screenplay and performance bring this Jane Austen novel to life. Kate Winslett, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman are all at their best.
Also available as:
Instant Download

How do you fit Jane Austen's best work into a two-hour movie and still keep the romance and humor and all the best lines? If you don't know this story about a willful young woman drawn to a man she has sworn to hate forever, it's time to learn. Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen hold their own with greats Donald Sutherland and Dame Judi Dench.
Also available as:
Instant Download
Strange and quirky, with a great supporting cast. The unlikely paring of David Duchovny and Minnie Driver works surprisingly well.
Also available as:
Instand Download

Gentle good humor and tight scripting propel Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey into an tangle that feels "right" but is so wrong. Both actors get what might be their best roles ever.
Also available as:
Instant Download

Chick Flicks for Guys Okay, that's probably hard to follow, but here are some "romantic comedies" that show the guy's point of view, and they are funny, which helps.
When a romance consultant's "cover" is blown, both he and his nebbish client are accused of taking unfair advantage of the women they really do love.
Also available as:
Instant Download
One of Sandler's best - his character falls in love with a woman who loses her long-term memory every night when she goes to sleep.
Also available as:
Instant Download
This one tells both sides of the story, with depth and humor, and lots of references to old romance and war movies.
Also available as:
Instant Download

Others of Interest If you already have all of the above, these make a nice supplement.
This is the "long" version. It is actually a BBC miniseries with a fantastic cast. I prefer this adaptation to the Keira Knightley one because it's so much closer to the book. Of course, at five hours long, it can afford to be. Don't plan on viewing it all in one sitting, although if you don't have significant willpower, you might anyway.
If you click on the download link below, be sure and download all of "season one" and not just the first episode.
Instant Download
More cutesy than romantic, but a good addition to your Jane Austen dvd collection.
Also available as:
Instant Download
A clever and often touching update of a Jimmy Stewart movie called The Shop Around the Corner.
You've Got Mail is also available as:
Instant Download
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