Worthy Holidays?

This blog originally appeared as a note on Facebook in February 2010, just before I set up Connective Visions. Because I’m at the one-year anniversary of this blog, and as some of our news media this year actually are exploring the holiday’s origins and why we invest so much in Valentine’s Day, it seemed worth re-posting.

St. Valentine healing an epileptic

Unable to escape mention of Valentine’s Day even by watching winter sports, my father sighed and said, “Well, at least they haven’t mentioned the massacre.”

Okay. Dad might actually remember the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He would have been eight years old when the South Side Italians gunned down seven members of the North Side Irish in Chicago in 1929. At age eight, news of the world does begin to take root in a child’s mind,* and the Prohibition Era was marked not only by one of America’s unfortunate attempts to legislate morality but also by a period of lurid journalism on a par with our own.

But it raised the question: what on earth is Valentine’s Day? A gang slaying is hardly the reason for the holiday!

Dad frowned and asked, “What did St. Valentine actually do?”

Lutherans don’t know these things about “lesser” saints. We left the Catholic PR behind in the indulgences box. But we are curious folk, and we have a book on the saints. So we looked the fellow up.

And surprise, surprise – St. Valentine had nothing at all to do with any of the hearts, flowers, candies, dates, dinners, and laments that we today call “a celebration of love.” (More usually, it’s a celebration of self-pity, but that’s another story.)

In fact, nothing much is known about the fellow, except that he likely was a Roman priest ca. 300 and he was beheaded. There are, in fact, several Italian contenders for “the” St. Valentine, two of whom were beheaded.

At best, St. Valentine’s Day is a day to lose your head.

The book on the saints dismissively attributes our later hype to the fact that February is supposedly the time when the birds begin to mate. (A look out the window cast some doubt on that – the birds seem quite content to stay in and watch sports, along with the rest of us.) Wikipedia cites the contesting theories that the day supplanted the Roman fertility festival Lupercalia and that Geoffrey Chaucer and his ilk came up with the association.

Whatever the case, Valentine’s Day as we know it has no ancient significance, no archetypal meaning, nothing but commercial hype behind it – aptly represented by Mayor Michael Nutter’s urging the population to come into Philadelphia and spend money despite our snow dilemma in 2010.

What is, perhaps, important about the day is the derivation of the name Valentine. It comes from the Latin valens, meaning “worthy.” The holiday may not be a worthy one, but it’s a good day to contemplate worth in oneself and others.

So, case closed, Dad? He nodded and asked, “Is there a Saint Hilarious?”

*At age eight, I became aware of the world by hearing the president of the United States declare that he wasn’t a crook. Shortly thereafter, Richard Nixon was no longer president of the United States. Since then, the words “I am not …” or “I did not …” from a politician have signaled to me “big fat lie coming your way.”