Monday, February 8, 2016

Be My Valentine

This week, if you’re so inclined, you can celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. This saint’s feast day, February 14, is typically associated with courtly or romantic love, and people like to send little missives embellished with hearts, roses, and twittering birds to their beloved (or would-be beloved) ones. Chocolate, champagne, and a bit of concupiscence may also figure in the celebration of the day.

How old St. Valentine became associated with all this amatorial activity is something of a mystery. There are, in fact, about a dozen St. Valentines (or Valentinus, the Latin version of the name, which stems from valens, meaning “worthy, powerful”), but the one usually identified with the holiday was a third-century priest (maybe a bishop) who was martyred near Rome by Emperor Claudius III because he was annoyed that Valentine tried to convert him to Christianity.

During the fourteenth century in France, the custom of choosing a sweetheart on St. Valentine’s day sprang up, presumably because birds were thought to choose their mates around the middle of February. The earliest English reference to Valentine’s Day in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1381 in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls:
“For this was on seynt Valentynes day
Whan euery bryd cometh there to chese his make.”

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the crazed Ophelia sings:
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door,
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.”

The origin of the custom of sending a letter or a card to one’s sweetheart began in the early nineteenth century, and is first recorded in 1824.

In addition to being associated with lovers and happy marriages, St. Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers, epileptics, and plague-sufferers.

Speaking of plagues, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou must be heard from.

            Roses are red,
            Violets vermilion,
            This verse would rhyme
            If you were named Lillian.

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