Valentine’s Day
A Distant Heart Murmur

By Jack Hafferkamp

Funny how our hearts-and-flowers merchandising day (second only to Christmas) has evolved. In the beginning it all was so different.

According to Charles Panati’s most excellent book, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, our St. Valentine’s Day stems from the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, which dates to the 4th-century B.C. Roman mythology of the time held that in the city’s earliest, most difficult days the god Lupercus protected Romans by keeping fierce wolves at bay. His festival became an important spring holiday.

For young Roman men, Lupercalia was a very special erotic time, marking a rite of passage. It was their turn to reach into a box and pull out the name of a particular young virgin. For the next year he and she were committed to function as companions in search of mutual entertainment and pleasure in a variety of forms, especially sexual.

This pre-family values tradition lasted about eight hundred years.

As it so often did when trying to win over people’s hearts and minds, the early Church sought to gain control of the situation by substituting its own "lover’s" saint for Lupercalia. Thus we got St. Valentine.

The historical Valentine mostly likely was a bishop martyred about 270 A.D. At the time, the Roman emperor, Claudius II, a.k.a. Claudius the Cruel, had banned marriage. He thought it was bad for making men good soldiers. Valentine held secret marriage rites. The emperor found out and ordered Valentine brought to him. As the story goes, Valentine so impressed the mad emperor that he tried to convince Valentine to convert to the pagan Roman religion. Valentine not only refused, he tried to convert Claudius to Christianity. Bad idea. On Feb. 14, the story goes, he was clubbed, stoned and beheaded.

Legend has it that while awaiting death, Valentine miraculously restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter -- as well as falling in love with her. On his way to death, he supposedly signed a farewell message to her: "From your Valentine."

Two centuries later, when Rome had become Christian, Pope Gelasius tried a little clerical bait and switch. He outlawed Lupercalia, but in its place he created a new game he thought was more uplifting. Each young player would randomly pick the name of a saint; his or her challenge was to emulate that saint’s life. Valentine was the sainted overseer of the whole festival.

Apparently, the tradition of sending cards to people one wishes to court does date to this time, as a kind of reminder of the older, earthier celebration. The oldest extant Valentine’s cards are in the British Museum, products of the French Duke of Orleans who was captured by the British at the battle of Agincourt in 1453 and kept prisoner in the Tower of London. To give himself something to do, he wrote poems to his wife. Over the next couple of centuries, Valentine’s Day became an important focus of the rising culture of chivalry.

In England, at least, the lottery system lived on in the custom of young unmarried people putting their names in boxes to be drawn out in male/female pairs. For the following year, the male would wear the female’s name on his sleeve and was duty bound to protect her. In the 17th century, St. Francis de Sales, the bishop of Geneva, tried to get rid of the romantic notion of cards sent to love objects by reinstating the long-gone saints lottery. He failed. In fact it was at this point that the image of Cupid, according to Roman mythology the child of Venus, the goddess of love, became closely identified with valentines.

What really got the Valentine’s Day card thing going in the 19th century was a reduction in postal rates. Cheaper postage made it possible for any guy to send his love to his gal pal. Of course, it also made possible the sending of anonymous Valentines. And that led some guys to go too far with verses too racy for certain Victorian sensibilities, especially those of chief U.S. Censor Anthony Comstock. Author Panati notes that in Chicago at the turn of the last century, the Post Office rejected some 25,000 cards it determined were not fit to be sent through the U.S. mail.

Judging by the terminal cuteness and sickly sweetness of many cards making their way through the mail, many of them still aren’t fit for mailing. But then that’s the perspective of an old non-romantic curmudgeon.

But then I also know that even if your lover knows that our own Valentine’s Day is just a marketing ploy, you’d still better not forget to give him/her a card, flowers, dinner and a major orgasm. Not if you know what’s good for you.