Monday, February 14, 2011

St. Valentine's Day — past and present - by Judge Jim Gray

Have you ever wondered where the Valentine's Day celebration came from? I did, and so I did a little research, and no, unlike Mother's Day, Valentine's Day is not rumored to have been created by Hallmark Cards.

St. Valentine's Day, commonly shortened to Valentine's Day, is celebrated throughout the world, but it has its roots in Christian and ancient Roman traditions. As best as can be determined, there was a pagan fertility celebration in Roman times called Lupercalia, in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf of Rome, and Faunas, the Roman god of fertility.

On Feb. 14, which was considered to be the first day of spring, two boys would slaughter a goat for fertility and a dog for purity. Then they would dress in animal skins, and gently slap women they would encounter on the streets with strips of the animals' hides dipped in sacrificial blood. All of this was intended to promote fertility.

It is hard to trace the derivation of the actual beginnings of Valentine's Day because in Catholic lore there are actually three St. Valentines, and each one was martyred. One of them lived and died in Africa, and his story is unclear.

The legend of the second says that he was a popular bishop in Rome who was captured by the emperor and imprisoned simply for being a Christian. Many people requested that he be released, but the emperor saw him as a threat because it was rumored that he had cured his jailor's daughter of blindness. Therefore the emperor had him brutally executed on Feb. 14. But on the day of his execution, he sent a note to the daughter professing his love for her, and simply signed it "from your Valentine."

The last legend took place during the time of Roman Emperor Claudius II, when he decided that his soldiers who did not have wives and families were less affected by prolonged periods of absence from home than those who were married. So Claudius decided to forbid any young men from getting married. But Valentine, a Catholic priest in what is now the Italian town of Terni, thinking this to be unjust, defied Claudius and secretly continued to marry these young lovers. When Claudius discovered what was happening, he had the priest executed. He was buried, as a hero to love, on Feb. 14, 270 A.D.

On that date, probably in the year 496 A.D., Pope Galasius, seeing Lupercalia as being both pagan and immoral, did away with it as a day of celebration, but replaced it with St. Valentine's Day, featuring it as a day for lovers. Over time this celebration spread over all of the Roman Empire, where it took root most firmly in England and France, but it was officially deleted from the Catholic Church's calendar by Pope Paul VI in 1969.

During the Middle Ages, it became the custom for English maidens to put a slip of paper with their names upon them into an urn on Feb. 14. Eligible bachelors would pick out a name, and then that selected girl and he would be a pair for the upcoming year. Many marriages resulted from this tradition.

Probably the first so-called Valentine cards were written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture in battle. Many of these poems or rhymed love letters are now on display in the British Museum.

The whole idea of writing similar handwritten notes became quite popular in England in the 17th Century, and by the mid-18th century it was common for friends and lovers to exchange these as well as little gifts. But by the end of the 18th century, both with the advent of the postal service and with changing cultural mores, it was deemed socially inappropriate to communicate personal feelings of affection to those of the opposite sex. Thus printed cards began to replace the handwritten ones.

Unfortunately with the large-scale use of the public mails, large numbers of obscene Valentine's Day cards began to be mailed anonymously to many people who were often and naturally offended by the receipt. This became so prevalent that in late 19th century Chicago, the postal service simply refused to deliver 25,000 Valentine's Day cards because they were deemed "unfit to be carried in the public mail."

Today it is estimated that about 180 million red roses are delivered each year in honor of Valentine's Day, as well as 36 million boxes of candy. In addition, an estimated 1 billion Valentine's Day cards are also delivered, of which an estimated 85% are sent by women. (This makes Valentine's Day the second highest day of the year for cards of celebration, with Christmas being the first with an estimated 2.6 billion cards.) Of course, all of this also makes Valentine's Day an estimated $14 billion per year business.

Although it is wonderful to purchase cards for the occasion, let's also try on this and every Valentine's Day to make the occasion personally special. As an example, on a Valentine's Day quite a few years ago, an elementary school teacher assigned her class to write a Valentine's Day card to each of their other class members, specifying two things that they most admired about the recipients. Some children were so gratified in hearing the positive things that their classmates felt about them that they kept those cards for years with their most cherished possessions. Some even kept them in their wallets.

So this Valentine's Day, let's each in our own way try to add to the gratification of the people in our lives. That will truly make the day special. In that spirit, my Valentine's Day gift to you is a poem by Zora Neale Hurston, who says: "Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place."

May your life be filled with that kind of love. Happy Valentine's Day!

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "Wearing the Robe: the Art and Responsibility of Judging in Today's Courts" (Square One Publishers, 2010), Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, A Voter's Handbook, Effective Solutions To America's Problems and can be reached at or Judge Jim Gray is also currently offering his 25 years of experience on the bench to ADR Services in Orange County for Arbitration and Mediation services.

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