The History Of St. Valentine’s Day

Legend has it that St. Valentine was a priest who lived in the Third Century in Rome. (He bore a striking resemblance to Kris Kristofferson.) Emperor Claudius II ruled with an iron fist and had great ambitions that demanded a large number of soldiers. He felt that men were reluctant to leave their wives and families for war, so he decreed marriage to be illegal for young men. Valentine vowed to defend holy matrimony and continued to wed young lovers in secret until he was caught. He supposedly fell in love with his jailor’s daughter and left her a note signed “Your Valentine.”

On February 14, 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to an execution consisting of beating, stoning, and beheading. Maybe not the history Hallmark cards would care to recount. “Hey — love is crazy but don’t lose your head. Happy Valentine’s Day!” Aside from being the patron saint of young lovers, Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers and epilepsy. Pretty diverse job description.

Some say the Christian Valentine’s Day was invented to replace the ancient pagan festival of Lupercalia in Rome, which was held on February 15. It involved sacrificing animals. Then, men dressed as goats would run around the city with strips of leather from the hides, slapping women who hoped to have a fertile year. As vegan feminists shake with rage in their pleather boots, we remember that this was a time where the fertility of people, animals, and crops was essential to survival. Of course, an old school version of Barry White playing in the Coliseum might have been a much more pleasant alternative.

Different rituals of Valentine’s Day play out throughout the world. In Italy, young women would wake up before dawn and the first man she would see she would marry in a year. Finally, this idea was abandoned, as milk men seemed to be populating the city centers.

In Germany, the pig is representative of luck and lust, so pigs posing in provocative postures make not only popular greeting cards but tasty gingerbread cookies.

France used to have a Valentine’s Day custom called “une loterie d’amour” or a drawing for love. Single people would gather in houses across the street and call out to each other until they paired off. The male suitor, if not attracted to his female partner, would leave, and the deserted women who were left would build a bonfire and burn images of the men who rejected them while hurling curses and abuse. Apparently, this got so out of control that the French government ultimately banned the tradition in the 1950s.

I don’t know. I think this could be a pretty hilarious moment in Sag Harbor if the singles gathered across from each other at Schiavoni’s and the American Hotel and started calling out. And hey, if the bonfire of female rage got out of hand, the fire department is right next door. I would be there for sure.

South Koreans offer a less incendiary way to face rejection with their Black Day on April 14, when singles dress in black and eat black noodles. Maybe local restaurants could just put a little squid ink pasta on the menu.

But we are not only a culture but an industry invested in love. Valentine’s Day in the U.S. is a $14 billion investment (although Necco, which made the Sweetheart Conversation Hearts, went out of business this year — so maybe it’s only $13 billion.)

Where does all this leave us with the question of how to celebrate Valentine’s Day? Maybe leave anything flammable, involving swine, or a felony out of it. Small gestures can mean a lot. You don’t need to marry the milk man but maybe say, “Hey, thanks so much for remembering the almond milk for my lactose intolerance.”

Rejection may be unavoidable, but even small acts of kindness are appreciated. We are living in a time when people are quick to anger and say negative things, so to honor our St. Valentine’s legacy, let at least one day be just about loving messages. And be nice to bees.

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