Sunday, February 14, 2010

St Valentine, His Day, and Its Celebration

St Valentine’s Day, February 14th, is a holiday that is very pleasant but somewhat confusing. Most do not see it as the true holy day it was intended to be; it isn’t an official state holiday anywhere; and reactions to it internationally vary from hard sell commercialism in the USA to heavy restriction in the KSA, and even violence in India from Hindu extremists, and clerical injunctions in Indonesia warning against imminent "free sex". Similarly, while some romantic partners celebrated it to the maximum, others have a pact not to. Those in the middle may make it an equal, reciprocal celebration or set limits on spending and types of acknowledgement, whether a card, a small gift, a romantic dinner, or taking advantage of a 2 for 1 seat sale to a weekend destination.

A time for romance, or shared affectionate greetings, it can be a down time for those with no current romantic interest whether they are single, separated, divorced, or widowed. It can also be a welcome mid-February diversion in colder darker northern climates, or a non-event.

Children in school are encouraged to give a Valentine to each classmate so none will feel left out, and all will be equal, but even in the early grades some are more special than others. For adults some offices decorate for the day and have bowls of candied cinnamon hearts available. Major longer term displays are reserved for related businesses, like florists, candy shops, chocolateries, card shops, gift shops, jewellers, restaurants, and vacation spots.

The situation in the KSA is quite different though. A February 13th article in Arab News "When the color is red" describes well the differences between non-celebration in Saudi Arabia, and celebration in other MENA countries, including Islamically conservative GCC ones like Dubai. In it, the journalist, Tarek Al Maeena, interviews different Saudis and Saudi residents on their views of Valentine's Day and their celebration plans or non-plans. What is striking is that many do plan to celebrate with a romantic partner, spouse, or friends, discreetly, and as a tribute to love and affection, with little knowledge of the underpinnings of the holiday, no religious qualms, and while wearing red--a tradition it seems in KSA, which is not one I have experienced elsewhere (except for lingerie). Perhaps this outwardly dressing in red is more important where other Valentine's Day tributes have been suppressed by the religious powers that be, and are unavailable for purchase well ahead of the 14th.

Despite the ban on celebrating Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia, Mariam Anwer, who studies and teaches Tajweed at Dar-ul-Huda in Jeddah, writes in the Saudi Gazette, on February 13th, in her "Reflections on Islam", that she sees trouble ahead:

As Valentine’s Day approaches again, I notice the display of bright red and pink color everywhere. Shops have gorgeous red dresses on display; flower shops increase the prices of red roses; gift shops in malls are full of cute teddy bears bearing red and pink hearts; jewelry and watches have special expressions in-scripted on them. Even sweet shops have heart shaped chocolates and candies specially wrapped in red and pink on request.
All this is not happening in a foreign country, but in an Islamic country like Saudi Arabia.
Young men and women make plans to celebrate this day either in groups or alone with their “special friends” of the opposite gender, “ahem”, behind their parents’ back.
I see them shopping for special dresses to wear on this day. T-shirts, shoes, jewelry, dresses, and even red nail polish to wear with those high heels. And not to forget the abayas with shiny red hearts.
The Gaza Massacre just a year back was a slap on the face of every living Muslim. It was a reminder for us to return to our roots. But as time passes, the reminder is lost in our short-lived memory.
Sadly, pink and red teddy bears will be the focus of our youth this week – following the ways and customs of a people who are involved in the humiliation and killing of our fellow brothers and sisters. I don’t understand how, after all this, we still enjoy imitating them?
Isn’t this happening today? We are not only blindly following their ways, but also feel proud in doing so. We need to wake up and submit wholeheartedly to the will and commands of Allah. We need to follow the ways of the Prophet (peace be upon him), his companions and their righteous followers. Only then will we find true peace and success.

Her interpretation of various ahadith (with a rather disconcerting "(do u mean)" mid Al-Bukhari) and Quranic verses, in conjunction with world events and Saudi covert and not so covert celebrations of Valentine's Day, is a stark contrast to Al-Maeena's article.

So, who is St Valentine, why do we celebrate Valentine's Day at all; why do some repress the celebration, or protest it violently? How is the day celebrated, where, and by whom?

Saint Valentine

Though not originally saints, even at the time of the creation of St Valentine's Day, the name day or feast day may refer to any one of 3 clerics named Valentine (of valour). Valentinus, a priest of Rome, martyred in 280 CE (or 260, 270, 273), during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Valentinus, a bishop of  Terni in Umbria, also martyred near Rome. Valentinus, a Roman martyr in the province of Afriqia (modern day Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria). Little is known about any of them, although the first 2 were both buried separately at different distances from Rome, along the Via Flaminia (a 300+ km "Roman Road" traversing Italy from Rome to the North East, ending at Rimini on the Adriatic Sea, and best known in our family for the last three towns before its end-- Fossombrone, Fano, and Pesaro--being the birthplaces and homes of maternal family members).

Saint Valentine kneeling in supplication, painting by David Teniers III

The first 2 martyrs, the priest of Rome and the bishop of Terni had churches dedicated to their memory, and both were venerated on February 14. Most is known about the first one, and he is probably the one referenced in the Roman Catholic official list of Saints, the Roman Martyrology; and is the one most associated with lovers. He was known for performing marriages for Christian couples in love, and generally for aiding Christians (out of caritas, charity, love), which was a crime in pre-Christian Rome. For this he was imprisoned by Emperor Claudius II, who nonetheless came to like him--until he attempted to convert the Emperor, whereupon he was sentenced to death, and beaten with clubs and stoned, before being decapitated outside the Flaminian Gate of the city. It would seem that this priest is the one most associated with Saint Valentine's Day as we conceptualize it today.


Archeologists believe this is the Lupercale Cave, Rome

However, another origin of the celebration of a day for lovers, is the Roman festival of Lupercalia, one that was so ancient as to pre-date the Roman civilization,  and to have its origins in Greece. This was a spring festival of cleansing and purifying the city of Rome, sending out the evil spirits so that fertility and heath could replace the sterility and death of winter. It was celebrated February 15, as was the more ancient festival that preceded it, Februa (which resulted in the name of the month). Lupercus, like the Greek god Pan, was the god of shepherds, his priests wearing goat skin thongs or "loin cloths".

On the festival day, the celebration took place at the Lupercalia--the den of the she-wolf, Lupa, believed to have suckled the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, on the Palantine Hill where Rome was originally established. 2 male goats and a dog (wolf)  were sacrificed, and thongs cut from the skins of the goats. The followers of Lupercus would then run about the Palantine city wearing only the thongs and tapping the hands of women who came out for that purpose, in order to guarantee fertility, or a successful pregnancy.

(St) Valentine's Day

By the time of the creation of  Valentine's Day, by Pope Gelasius in 496 CE, in honour of a number of martyrs named Valentine whose deeds had not yet necessarily resulted in beatification (sainthood), the Lupercalia had become a peasant holiday for the city rabble, in a now Christian Rome. It is thought by some that the primary purpose of the feast day was to Christianize the pagan festival. Beatification seems to have been confirmed later, and indeed a number of Saints Valentine were created by different Popes over the centuries, each having his own day. Not the least of these was the 8th century Spaniard San Valentín, martyred with his sister Santa Engracia, in 715 by Moors. Their brother San Frutos died a natural death the same year.

Reliquary of Saint Valentine of Terni, patron saint of Navarcles, Catalonia, Spain (casket 1776)

The status in the Roman Catholic faith of February 14th as a saint's day, one to be feted or merely noticed, or not a feast day at all has changed over time by Church edict, and currently is one to be noted, on the day of the week on which February 14 occurs. As the reputations of saints spread, so it seems do their relics (their bones, burial artefacts, sacred items), and as there is more than one Saint Valentine places from Ireland to Poland, passing through Spain, France, Italy, and Germany have reliquaries of a St Valentine, often the Bishop of Terni, who is feasted.  In Roquemaure in France, this has given rise to La Fête du Baiser, the Feast of the Kiss, or Lover's Festival, on the Saturday following St Valentine's Day (February 20th this year), which is notable for the period costumes as well as the "free kissing".

Over time "St Valentine's Day" has been secularized and universalized to "Valentine's Day".

Courtly Love

Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous Medieval poet, best known for The Canterbury Tales, is considered by scholars to have invented many of the romantic traditions around Valentine's Day in his poem Parlement of Foules, written in 1382 as a tribute to King Richard II of England (he of later Lionheart, Robin Hood, and Crusades fame) and Anne of Bohemia on the 1 year anniversary of their May 2, 1381 engagement (by international treaty). At  the time of their marriage, 8 months after this tribute, Richard was 13 or 14 and Anne was 14. Like formal marriages of the time, this was a political arrangement. Others didn't usually formally marry. However, the Chaucer poem romanticizes their love well, including the word Valentine explicitly in context:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

For this was on Saint Valentine's Day
When every bird came there to choose his mate
[birds mating, and singing are symbols of human love,
and love-making in Chaucer's poetry]

It was written during the period of courtly love poems and romances (ballads) that were the late Middle Ages inventions of writers and noblewoman, corollaries to the battle epics and the fighting of knights, whether in Europe or in the Holy Land. Charles, Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (part of the 100 Years War between England and France) wrote a Valentine to his wife, beginning:

Je suis desja d'amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée

I am already tormented by love
My very sweet Valentine...
—Charles d'Orléans , Rondeau VI, lines 1–2

Shakespeare's Ophelia alludes to Hamlet's sexual improprieties on Valentine's Day (1600-01), with a maid, who becomes "no more a maid" after visiting his chambers; and John Donne (17th century), among other famous poets, wrote Valentine's Day poetry for famous contemporary couples.

Romantic partners continued to write their own love poems for Valentine's Day until in the 18th and 19th centuries when factory printing of cards largely, but did not completely replace them.

Valentine’s Day Around the World

It seems as if on all continents, in all cultures, and irrespective of religion, Valentine's Day is celebrated with local variations throughout the world. In part following the spread of Christianity, and of colonialism, it has also taken hold via international travel, expatriate importations, and commercialism. In more traditional, non-Western style celebrations, February 14 in East Asia is a day when women give men chocolate, and March 14 is White Day, a day for men to reciprocate. However, East Asia also has some of the most ostentatious and expensive floral, chocolate, and restaurant celebrations, in large part due to the efforts of their respective industries importing and marketing Western customs. The Arab world outside of Saudi Arabia, including the Muslim Arab world, seems to be in full celebratory mode.  Throughout Europe and the Americas, as well as in Australia, Valentine's Day is part of a longer and at least originally Christian tradition. However, in general the holiday has become secularized and extended to platonic expressions of love and friendship.

Valentine gifts in Dubai

Valentine Cards

As mentioned above, the tradition of Valentine's cards expressing one's love was probably a continuation of the romantic tradition of writing love poems as gifts for the object of one's affections on Valentine's Day.  However, printed cards came to replace them, and mass reproduction of Valentines as a commercial entreprise in the 19th century US in particular hastened this transition. These traditional printed cards are fascinating and beautiful in their own right, and a number of them can be seen at this vintage card website. Some are included from there, and some from elsewhere, below.


Handwritten poem to Susanna, Cork Ireland, St Valentine’s Day, 1850

An original Sailor's Valentine, 1850's, made in Barbados

Valentine's Gifts

From cards as above to tokens or toys, or candy, or flowers, then roses specifically and red roses especially, to all 3:

To jewelery:

To just go for it:

The Burmese Ruby Tiara, part of the Burmese Crown Jewels

Valentine's Day, like other holidays, is increasingly commercialized. However, there is, in this instance, almost unique pressure on men to buy ever more expensive symbols of their love. This can put a strain on relationships, as well as on the men. Whether it is the "are we dating or just friends?" relationship, or the girlfriend expecting an engagement ring, or the wife wanting a reminder of romance and love, there is plenty of room for pressure, and misunderstanding, fueled by well-designed marketing ploys, including more recently by the diamond industry. Sales personnel, particularly women, seem to be very good at convincing men to "buy up", that is buy a "little more", or something  a "little more" expensive than what they had intended, and what might overstretch their own, or the couple's, or the family's budget.

The Spirit of the Day

The South American "El Día del amor y la amistad" or "Love and Friendship Day" is probably the closest to the genuine spirit of the day, and to its most inclusive expression. In that spirit:

Happy Valentine's Day to All!

What are your impressions of Valentine's Day?
How is it celebrated where you live?
How do you celebrate? or not?
Any special memories about Valentine's Day?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Souma said...

I never received a valentine, in my 23 years of life on this planet *pout*

During highschool (as i attended a posh spoiled private highschool) boys would parade in their convertibles filled with balloons and teddy bears, giving them to girls before the hay'aa gets to them.

I woke up this morning thinking: it's a conference i'm going to, not the ward, let me put on nail polish! maroon sounds like a good idea! and then you reminded me of the unwanted attention red gathers today. i think i'll wear blue.

Chiara said...

Souma--Thank you for your comment, and Happy Valentine's Day! Very interesting way that the boys would find to give out Valentines. Creative!
Hmmmm blue nail polish orrr purple (red + blue)? No venous return jokes, but enjoy your conference. The programme looks really interesting, including the social events! :)
Check your email!

Susanne said...

Some of those Valentine's are SO cute! And it was neat seeing my name on that handwritten poem! I don't see "Susanna" often. My nephew was writing out his not-as-cute Valentines the other day - Transformers! :) But he thought the girls wouldn't like those so he was going to make theirs and use stickers. Ha!

I enjoyed reading the history of this day. I agree that here it is mostly secular. I never hear people talk about St. Valentine.

Thanks for another interesting post. Hope your day is special. :)

Chiara said...

Susanne--thanks for your comment and wishes. I thought of you as soon as I saw the Valentine to Susanna--it is a beautiful one isn't it? The idea of writing original greetings, if not quite poetry, has always appealed to me.
Yes, children's Valentines judging by my nephew's collection are...odd. One year he gave out playing card size Valentines with Power Rangers or some such for the boys in the class and pinker but not nice (imho) ones for the girls.

I do think it is a nice day in its broadest application, and one can enjoy all the February cheering up from winter without buying.

That said, I am looking for my tiara now! LOL :)

I hope you had a special day as well! Any particularly southern traditions?

Susanne said...

Ah, good that you could concur with me on the not-so-cute Valentine's these days. It's great "talking nephews" with you. :)

I agree with you on the handwritten Valentine's. They seem more special and heartfelt somehow.

No, no southern traditions that I can think of except that yesterday happened to also be the Daytona 500 so one lady on Facebook had "Happy Valentine's Day-tona 500" on her status. :)

Hope you get your tiara! Hehehe.

Chiara said...

Susanne--yes it is great talking nephews! Hmmm I was sure the Romantic South of cotillions and such could come up with something better than Daytona. Maybe it's all in the southern accented delivery of the romantic mots! LOL :)

Still hunting for the tiara! :) :P


Related Posts with Thumbnails