February 14, 2011
ST VALENTINE’S DAY
Apparently, according to online sources, there were two Saint Valentines whose feast was traditionally celebrated on February 14. Both were martyred by the Roman Empire. One was a priest in Rome who was executed around 269 ce, and the other a bishop in Terni, Italy in Umbria north of Rome. He was killed earlier, somewhere around 200 ce.
As to the connection with romantic love, there are many legends and theories. I offer my own guesswork based on the following historical fact (from Wikipedia):
In Ancient Rome, Lupercalia, observed February 13 through 15, was an archaic rite connected to fertility. Lupercalia was a festival local to the city of Rome. The more general Festival of Juno Februa, meaning “Juno the purifier “or “the chaste Juno,” was celebrated on February 13–14. Pope Gelasius I (492–496) abolished Lupercalia.
It is my conjecture that the mere confluence of events — a traditional Roman celebration of fertility and the feast day of a saint — was sufficient to meld the two. What it suggests, of course, is that the Roman population continued to celebrate its “pagan” festivities well after and despite the papal abolition. The association of the festival with the Saint of the day seems natural and obvious.
It is reminiscent of the association of “Christmas” with the saturnalia, a week-long Roman festivity and merry-making surrounding the winter solstice — the “re-birth” of the sun — ending on december 23. There seems little doubt that our “christmas-week” is its continuation.
The lupercalia-valentine connection would be an instance of the traditional practice of Christianity after its elevation to “Catholic” religion of the empire, to simply “baptize” as it were, traditional Roman customs, practices, festivals (“feasts”), buildings (temples, basilicas), rituals (the “sacrifice” of the mass perfrormed on an “altar” with back to the people, traditional vestments of the priests of the Roman gods, even the incense that was used to cover the stench of animal sacrifice), prayers (the preconium paschale and the standard forms of prayers like the “collects”), and the divine protectors of localities (the lares et penates that were translated into “patron” saints) etc.
The “transformation” worked in both directions. A Christianity imposed by an emperor (Constantine) who himself was not a Christian, remained a superficial transfer of formalities and buildings for a very long time and was very much a surface phenomenon. It took centuries for “transformation” to take place and the tactic employed on the part of the religious authorities was to find natural correlations and connections that would rock the boat as little as possible. “Catholicism” was as much the product of Roman custom and culture as it was an attempt to penetrate and transform “pagan” traditions.
At a deeper level the phenomenon meant that the transcendent Roman cultural category of “law” came to dominate “Catholic” theology so thoroughly as to re-interpret the entire christian tradition as an expression of law. Even “love,” which one would think the very essence of untrammeled spontaneity, came to be subsumed under the category of command and obligation … the new “law.” Love was — incredibly — turned into obedience in the Roman mind.
Valentine’s day is an example … and a good reminder … of the syncretist nature of “Roman Catholicism.”