Getting to the Heart of Valentine's Day

John Hartnett

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Valentine’s Day is coming up in a few days but I’m betting you know that already. Probably completely prepared, right?

Me? I got some ideas working. Might head out to the mall. Pick up a box of candy. Everyone loves sweets and one size fits all unless you’ve got will power issues. Maybe one of those red velvet cards…

Who am I kidding? I’m never prepared for Valentine’s Day because I don’t get it. Every year Valentine’s Day comes around and every year I feel like I’m being slapped with a romance subpoena demanding that I declare my love and my savings to everyone I’ve ever met.

I have to buy cards and gifts for my children to give to their classmates, their teachers, their friends, their grandparents. I’m supposed to purchase something for my wife, my daughters, co-workers and my mother. What’s the significance of this sloppy, all-inclusive holiday anyway? If Valentine’s Day is about romance, why in the name of Sigmund Freud and Jerry Springer must I send something to my mother? Isn’t that why we have Mother’s Day?

Judging by what people spend on this holiday, I may be the only one on the planet who remains in the dark as to what we’re celebrating when we celebrate Valentine’s Day.

According to the National Retail Federation’s 2004 Valentine’s Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey (romantic title, no?), Americans spent $13 billion on cards, candy, flowers, jewelry and meals, averaging out to nearly $100 per individual.

That’s nothing. Young adults between the ages of 18-24 are the biggest spenders, averaging $155 apiece. For the sake of those poor kids, let’s hope the relationships last as long as it takes to pay off the credit cards used to purchase all those expressions of love. Love? What’s love got to do with it? This is big business, baby.

“But John, you’re just being cynical. ” Maybe you’re right, whoever just said that. Perhaps I’ve spoken to soon. Maybe I should go back to the beginning to understand the origins of Valentine’s Day before passing judgment. You can come to; just don’t get too chummy. The last thing I need is another person I’ve got to buy something for.

The story of Valentine’s Day is one in which fact and legend are intertwined – just like blind dates. Beginning in the 4th century B. C. , the rites of passage of young men to the pagan god Lupercus were celebrated in a lottery where teenage boys selected the names of teenage girls out of a box to establish romantic relationships for a period of one year.

Some 800 years later in 496 A. D. , Pope Gelasius wanted the church to distance itself from such pagan rituals and commanded that the names of young women be replaced with the names of saints, with the intention that young men would forget all about girls and choose to emulate the saints they selected. You don’t need a market research firm to tell you how that went over.

Undaunted, the Church continued to seek a more suitable representative for romantic love than a pagan god, and reached back in history to 270 A. D. to summon Valentine, the bishop of Interamna, who had been clubbed and beheaded for his devotion to lovers and the sacrament of marriage.

Valentine had raised the ire of the Roman emperor Claudius II, known far and wide as a certifiable lunatic (but not to his face), who abolished marriage as a means to strengthen his armies. Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers who preferred staying home and cleaning the gutters rather than poking strangers with sharp objects who often poked back with sharp objects of their own. Without wives at home, Claudius reasoned that men would welcome the diversion of invading another country on the weekends instead of say, bowling.

In defiance of the decree, Valentine continued to marry couples in secret until Claudius found out. Impressed with Valentine’s conviction and integrity, Claudius attempted to convert Valentine to paganism as a means to avoid execution. Valentine, against the strong protests of his attorney, attempted to convert Claudius to Christianity. Although Claudius made a half-hearted gesture of flipping through a Christian pamphlet Valentine had given him, Claudius remained a pagan and Valentine held fast to his belief in God and the sanctity of marriage.

During his imprisonment, Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailer and reportedly through his unyielding faith, miraculously restored her sight. Before his execution, he signed a farewell message to his beloved, “From your Valentine. ”

So Pope Gelasius resurrected Valentine to serve as a romantic role model and after a time, pagan gods faded away and Valentine’s Day became known as a church holy day.

Now I get it. If that’s not a holiday intended to celebrate romance, call me Claudius. You can send Valentines and gifts to who ever you’d like but me, I’m going to write a little love letter to my wife and that’s it. I love you too, Mom, but if you’re craving chocolates, we’re talking mid-May at the earliest.

John Hartnett is the owner of Early Bird Publishing, a manufacturer of humorous greeting cards. He can be reached at


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