Sunday, February 13, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day -- A Little Bit of History

In some ways, Valentine’s Day is a perfect holiday for me. The legend of Valentine’s Day is unique among secular holidays in its connection of religion and sexuality. Its history is both pagan and early Christian.

The Roman festival “Lupercalia” was a pagan holiday in mid February to assure the fertility of both women and crops. Young men pulled slips of paper with the names of young women out of boxes to learn who would be their sexual companions for the next year, sort of an early

In 496 c.e., Pope Gelasive turned the festival into a minor Christian holiday, naming it for St. Valentine. The names of saints replaced the names of young women on the slips of paper in the boxes, and men were supposed to emulate the saint on the slip they had chosen for the next year. (One can only imagine this must have been a hard sell after the previous custom!)

St. Valentine was a priest in the third century (or maybe a composite of several priests.) The Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage for young men so they could serve in his military without family obligations. The priest Valentine continued to marry young couples in secret. Discovered, he was sent to jail and sentenced to death for disobeying the Emperor. The legend continues that he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and wrote her a note, signed “From Your Valentine”, prior to his beheading on February 14, 270. This of course was when priests were still allowed to marry.

Quite a history for a day that's now celebrated with Hallmark cards and boxes of candy. It's early pagan origins remind us of the centrality for many people of having a sexual partner in their life. St. Valentine's story reminds us that marriage was once not available to young men, and that he began his own marriage equality movement in protest.

I like that so many sexual justice organizations celebrate Valentine's Day as a day of justice. It's Freedom to Marry week, it's Standing on the Side of Love Sunday, it's even national condom week.

And it's a day and a week to celebrate love -- all the types of love that grace our lives. For those of us with a partner, it's a time for a "recommitment ritual", a time to remember what makes our relationship special and holy. For those of us with children, it's a time to remember our special bonds of love. For all of us, it's a time to be grateful for the people who we love and the people who love of us, just the way we are.

Happy Valentine's Day.

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