Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

A holiday is a holy day (although Valentine's Day is no longer technically a holy day, it remains so in my heart), as the word would suggest, but days of holiness have reasons for their holiness and that, my friends, is where the history comes in.

DISCLAIMER: This is going to be somewhat more personal, its going to go on tangents which contain telescoping parentheses, its going to be heavily Catholic, and while I'm going to put in as much history as I can, this is a post about love written by a rank sentimentalist, so be prepared for some rank sentimentalism.

There are a couple fold aspects to St. Valentine's Day. Firstly, as many classicists will emphasize, the holiday takes the place of a popular Roman holiday, Lupercalia. Like many pagan Roman holiday's its association with the pagan religion made it uncomfortable for Christians to celebrate and difficult for potential converts to give up.

(Would they have to give it up? If I might point out some Christian precedent, this situation is somewhat similar to eating food that has been offered up to idols, ie, enjoying the benefits of pagan ceremonies without participating in the pagan part, and this situation was a historical dilemma for Christians. The solution however, can be seen in the First Letter of Paul to the Corithians. He says that in his view it is not a sin to eat food offered to idols, although if the Christian worried that it might be a sin, then it would be a sin because he or she would be choosing pleasure over potential sin. Thus my view is that enjoying the celebrations of a pagan holiday without having any sort of reverent attitude to the religion that sparked the celebration would not be a sin, however, if the Christians were ambivalent and worried about the potential sinful nature of the holiday, then precedent holds they should probably not participate, and this likely was the case of many Christians in the Roman world with Lupercailia, hence the dilemma.)

But while the celebration of Lupercalia was primarily of fertility (in this it was also a celebration of spring, similar to those present in many other cultures, perhaps explaining why its replacement spread so fast), it also had aspects of celebrating love, and love was (and is) a hugely important theological principle among Christians.

(while Jesus himself talked about love, the most famous theological speculation after Jesus about love was St. Paul's in his First Letter to the Corinthians)

Thus a logical way out was to change the celebration from fertility to love, and to secure the new emphasis, no longer was the celebration commemorating the abduction (essentially rape, but to be fair marriage by abduction was practiced by many cultures in the ancient world) of the Sabine women by the early founders of Rome (a more exact explanation of Lupercalia can be found in this page by Professor James Grout of U. Chicago), but rather now the emphasis was on a saint who embodied love. Yet to not break completely from the fertility celebration, the saint had to be one of marital and romantic love. The question of if this saint was real or was just folklore or was even invented so that there could be a saint of marital and romantic love is still debated among historians, but I find it of less importance. The importance of the holiday is romantic love, which good marital love hopefully has, and so instead of joining that debate, I instead direct you to a good place to check out the various stories of several, perhaps real, saints called Valentine who are celebrated on this holiday.

And here's a little more on the Catholic perspective on St. Valentine's Day (if I'm seeming a little uber-Catholic today, well it's because I am uber-Catholic and as I said holiday has historically and literally meant holy day). By the way, the previous Catholic site I directed you to comes from the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, a good resource (the early 20th century encyclopedias, many of whom are on the web and public domain, represented a different age in encyclopedia making, when it was not just about knowledge (not that there's anything wrong with solely-knowledge-centric encyclopedias) but also about fine writing and that's why a lot of people still like them despite their age) but a bit out of date, this second Catholic site is from and is up-to-date, for example, it notes that St. Valentine's Day has been taken out of the Catholic Liturgical Calender.

And for you Valentine's Day haters out there, here's a Christian anti-Valentine's Day site (although it's from which I feel is a bit Protestant-y) and here's a secular anti-Valentine's Day site. (the secular one's also a bit more bitter and a bit more vulgar, but hey, so are many people (including me occasionally) around Valentine's Day)

My own feelings about the day are not historic (so I'll try to be brief about them), and they might strike some as not strictly Christian (although they are rooted in my faith). I like St. Valentine's Day a lot, I think love is something sacred and grand, and while I do not think romantic love is for everyone, (historically has been acknowledgement that romantic love is not for everyone, see for example, Jesus's words about marriage and divorce) I do believe it is wonderful for those who can find it and have the capacity to embrace it. I hope someday to fall into the latter category myself some day.

And if I do not have anyone to celebrate the majesty and mystery of romantic love, well, at least I can raise a toast to it. Because it really is good stuff, after all, were it not for romantic love, none of use would even be here.

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