The early church cleaned up and Christianized a raunchy Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia that we now celebrate as Valentine’s Day. To this day, the observance carries enough of the cachet of its origins in romance and seduction that we spend more than $14 billion celebrating it.
The appeal of the day, marked by cards, candy, flowers and plush toys, has spread rather far. It is a big deal in China, and a fast-growing phenomenon in India too. One suspects that in both countries they celebrate for the same reason — they now have the money and the leisure to do so.
The celebration of Valentine’s Day, with its handmade cards and the decorated letter boxes to put them in, seems to have fallen off in the schools, and many who are enthusiastic participants may be hard-pressed to specify exactly what it is they are observing.
The Catholic church has three saint Valentines, all of them martyred. Popular legend has it that the namesake Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome who secretly married young lovers despite an imperial edict against it. Valentine was imprisoned — where a note to his jailer’s daughter was said to have been the original Valentine’s card — and eventually beaten and beheaded.
Something there is about Valentine’s Day that still arouses religious intolerance. In India, radical Hindus and Muslims, happily ignored by the populace at large, are threatening to attack and beat young couples found courting. Muslim clerics in Russia and the Sudan are denouncing the celebration.
Worst of all are the puritanical religious police in Saudi Arabia, where Valentine’s Day is banned, apparently not successfully because the police are ordering the shops cleared of all red and heart-shaped merchandise.
Think of your own Valentine’s Day observance — today is the big day, remember — as a modest blow for religious freedom and simple fun.
And if you had lost track of the date, you are welcome for the rescue.