As a young child, I was very incredulous of Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t so much the pink motif or the little cupids. I was ok with the romantic message. What always bothered the young me was the absurd amount of packaging you had to go through to get to a relatively small amount of candy. Valentine’s Day definitely lost out to the quickly accessible sugar highs of Halloween. And it even fell behind mediocre gustatory holidays like Thanksgiving.
But with this incredulity noted, how exactly should an American Jew feel about Valentine’s Day anyway? After much reflection, I have to declare Valentine’s Day to be one of the most American of holidays and one I can fully support as an American Jew. Over the course of two millennia, this originally religious feast day has become a non-religious testament to the ideals of love and commitment. As an American Jew I am proud to celebrate it and the triumph of American pragmatism over religiosity and complicatedly wrapped chocolates. So, without further ado, let me begin a short history of Valentine’s Day.
The early histories of Signor Valentine (there are three) read like something out of a bad horror movie – with maybe a scene or two with the ever-so-good-looking Robert Patterson type character. In one version of the story, Signor Valentine comes down to Rome from Assisi in 280. He quickly falls in with the wrong crowd, gets arrested by Claudius II and after making moves on the emperor ends up beaten, beheaded and buried under the Flaminian Way. A second version puts the good saint in Tierne, between Rome and Florence. In this version, he still loses his head, but this time for secretly marrying soldiers. His cutoff head then comes back to life to proclaim his love for his jailer’s daughter, which in a way might explain the jailer’s desire to remove Signor Valentine’s head in the first place. There is also a third version floating around, that somehow involves Valentine wandering around North Africa, where he may have gotten lost or may have been eaten by a lion.
The various possible deaths of the good (or good tasting) Valentine don’t really matter to the history of the holiday. What was really of importance is that in 496, Pope Gelasius decided that the Roman festival of Lupercalia was getting out of hand. It all has something to do with naked men whipping women with rawhide at an annual lover’s lottery. All I can say is that the Romans were much more open about this sort of thing than us Americans. The anniversary of Saint Valentine’s death conveniently fell the day before a troop of naked Roman young men were supposed to go parading down the Flaminian Way. A new feast day seemed a great opportunity to emphasize true monogamous love. And thus the holiday of Saint Valentine’s Day was born.
Throughout the next millennia and a half the holiday slowly developed into its modern form. Jeffrey Chaucer’s poems show that by the late 14th century, Valentine’s Day had become associated with romantic love. Valentine’s Day Cards came into vogue in Edwardian England. The Penny Post of the 1680’s furthered this tradition. It made sending valentines by mail an affordable novelty. The post also made such cards anonymous, allowing them to be a unique manner of conveying somewhat scandalous written improprieties.
It is this strange Edwardian Tradition, celebrating a beheaded, befuddled or bitten fifth century man, that American practicality turned into modern Valentine’s Day. In the second half of the 20th century, we Americans began the practice of giving each other gifts – roses, chocolates and diamonds – as a sign of true love. American commercialization soon took over the holiday. It quickly became impossible to get a February 14th table reservation for one. The US postal service was stuck hiring overtime postmasters. Singles Awareness Day (SAD) presented a welcome singles’ escape from the throngs of lovers.
There is one final twist in the Saint Valentine’s Day tradition that is of particular interest to the American Jew. In 1969 the Church made an effort to revise its liturgical calendar and remove saints of “questionable” origins. The three Saint Valentines were cut from liturgy and Saint Valentine’s Day officially became a non-religious holiday. So, American Jews, I say, “what are you worried about?” - celebrate with abandon. Enjoy your lovers and spouses. And toast to the long and winding history that brought you the American traditions of chocolate heart-shaped boxes, red roses and true love.
David Cobey graduated from Princeton University in 2007 with a degree in quantitative economics. Since graduation, he has worked for a non-profit in rural Guatemala and in business strategy at a Philadelphia startup. When he is not working in politics, he loves kayaking, running, traveling and trying to make the world a better place.