Explore the history of St Valentine
February 7, 2018 | 4:33 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan

As February 14 hurtles ever closer on our calendars, it’s not unsurprising to see mark-ups on anything and everything that would even remotely count as gift for our significant others...

Marketers, clever individuals that they are, always target anything with a shade of pink first. But Valentine’s Day wasn’t meant to be this way.

There is – to quote John Dorian from ‘Scrubs’ – an inner monologue running through our head around this time of year. To buy, or not to buy, that is the question.

The origins of the name ‘Valentine’s Day’ can be traced to that exotic, lovey-dovey land sometimes known as France. The French call it Le Jour de St Valentin, or the day of Saint Valentine, a 3rd century Roman saint who actually died on the 14th of February in 269 AD, having been associated with the traditions of courtly love among Italy’s wealthy elite, one that emphasised nobility and chivalry.

These have been handed down to us in the form of bold, brave knights and their fearless steeds galloping to the ends of the earth to fight evil monsters and take from them the rose (or shiny, blingy thing) they so jealously guard. That’s because the woman they love covets it (how they knew of it before the time of well-researched encyclopaedias and the magic of Google, or why said monster would spend all his life guarding such a bauble is beyond us) and he must find it to win favour with her.

There are, though, conflicting accounts of Valentine’s – or to use his Roman name St. Valentinus’ – claim to fame. Some account say he defied an order by Roman Emperor Claudius, who decreed that all unmarried men would face conscription, and secretly married couples who were in love, while others say that his unconditional love for those around him was so strong that he was able to restore the sight of the daughter of the judge who’d sent him to prison in the first place.

So moved by his actions was the judge, that he set free not just Valentinus, but all those he’d incarcerated. Love, as it turned out, was the answer. Or nearly always anyway. Valentinus is always pitted against Claudius, who’s portrayed as an evil tyrant focused solely on his own needs, and extending the borders of the Roman Empire to fuel his own ego. It is, allegorically speaking, a battle of the selfless against the selfish.

Most narratives see him earn his freedom by performing a selfless act of love, with another example of this involving Valentinus healing the blind daughter of his jailer through prayer. Although he was ultimately executed, he left her a note that was signed ‘your Valentine’.

To many of us, Valentine’s Day is either a chance for us to make our special someones either glad or giggly, but strip away the heart-shaped branding and pinkish hue this holiday has taken, and one would realise that the twisty-turny path between what February 14th is and was are two very different things.

As with most journeys in life, it wasn’t the destination that mattered, but the journey, one that was meant to act as a test of character, determination and willpower. One that taught us that though love did conquer all, it was one that had to be earned through selflessness and dedication.

The story of St Valentine and this modern day urge many of us seem to possess reminded me of an episode from the hilarious TV series ‘The Middle’.

One episode in this hilarious series revolved around Valentines’ Day – dad Mike Heck (played by the brilliant Neil Flynn, best known as the Janitor from ‘Scrubs’) is not one for emotional displays of affection, so when February 14th rolls around, he takes wife Frankie (the excellent Patricia Heaton, who played the long-suffering Debra Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond) to a local restaurant with a couple of other families to celebrate the occasion.

While Mike is making a meal out of his meal, Frankie’s attention seems to centre around the nice flower lady, who’s selling long-stemmed roses at 10 dollars a pop. She’s sold flowers to every couple she’s visited, and squeals of delight are heard on either side of Mike and Frankie, as both sets of husbands eagerly fork over the cash in exchange for the red rose, and given the spirit of the occasion and that look of expectation in her eyes, you’d expect Mrs Heck would be chirping in glee. Mr Heck, though, shoos away the flower lady and her wicker basket. Cue stunned silence and bewilderment at the table, with an oblivious Mike continuing to savour his meal.

The moment they cross the threshold of their own home, though, Frankie peppers Mike with questions more liberally than he did his steak, all of which revolve around why he didn’t get her a flower.

Mike – ever a man of his own principles – says he doesn’t see the big deal in buying his wife overpriced flowers and candy on a day which was created by corporate interests to market love.

So the next time you’re out there, your eyes unable to bear the metaphorical brilliance of a diamond necklace in its satin throne, staring at you from the shop window, or are wondering whether Summer Breeze smells nicer than Ocean Calm, and as you wonder whether the pretty penny you’ll inevitably fork over for it is worth it, it’s market forces and societal pressure you’d want to curse.

Not Saint Valentine, whose good name seems to have now been sullied by corporate speak. Turns out he was a pretty stand-up guy. — [email protected]

Subscribe to our newsletter and be the first to know all the latest news