Rory Fitzgerald looks at the origins of St Valentine’s Day
St Valentine’s Day is not what it once was. Many historians believe that until the Middle Ages it was associated, not with romantic love, but with ideas of sacrifice and agape — or the love of God.
However, the feast day can still inspire the fear of God in those men who — late on the evening of February 13 — suddenly realise that they’ve forgotten it completely, and so embark on a panic-stricken rush to their local 24-hour garage for a box of Milk Tray and some half-wilted flowers.
Few amongst us have not been that soldier. The fear that motivates these late-night shoppers is not unfounded: 53 per cent of American women say they would dump their boyfriends if they did not get them anything for Valentine’s Day.
Perhaps St Valentine’s Day is merely returning to form.
As well as occasionally inspiring the fear of God in men, St Valentine’s Day is once again increasingly associated with sacrifice — of the financial variety.
Whereas once a bottle of Le Piat d’Or might have done the trick, nowadays gifts such as jewellery and an evening out in an expensive restaurant are all de rigeur.
During the Celtic Tiger years, surprise city breaks to Paris were becoming a dangerously common St Valentine’s Day treat.
The identity of the original St Valentine is lost in the mists of early Christianity. There are three of St Valentines — all martyrs — associated with February 14.
One is said to have been the Bishop of Termi in Italy; another a priest in Rome, while another died in Africa.
The legends of St Valentine are so nebulous that the Church actually removed the feast day from its general liturgical calendar in 1969.
The most commonly told story about St Valentine is that he was a priest who crossed the Roman Emperor Claudius II in around 270, and was put to death for refusing to recant his Christian faith.
In one telling of the story, he was even so bold as to attempt to convert the Emperor to Christianity.
Other stories say that he continued to perform secret marriage ceremonies in defiance of an imperial edict.
It was only in the Middle Ages that St Valentine’s Day became associated with romantic love.
The popular association of St Valentine’s Day with love and marriage is said to have arisen from a belief in medieval Europe that, on February 14, birds coupled for the mating season.
This association was made definitive by Chaucer’s 1381 poem, Parliament of Foules, which says: ”For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh there to choose his mate.”
In the Paston Letters written in the 15th Century, one Elizabeth Brews attempts to match her daughter to a suitor, writing: ”Upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night — speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.” The origin of the phrase ‘love birds’ comes from this association.
The letters also reveal that people were referring to each other as ‘my Valentine’ as early as the 15th Century. One letter is dedicated: ”Unto my rightwell beloved Valentine.”
Sending romantic greetings on St Valentine’s Day was so commonplace by the 18th Century that books were written to assist unpoetic young men in composing romantic verse.
In 1797, a British publisher printed The Young Man’s Valentine Writer which offered suggestions to win over a young lady.
The hackneyed ”roses are red, violets are blue” line originally came from Edmund Spencer’s 1589 epic poem the Fairie Queen: ”She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.”
In early 19th Century England, the first mass-produced Valentine’s cards were printed. These were elaborate affairs, often featuring lace and ribbon.
By the middle of the 19th Century, the craze for Valentine’s cards had hit America. Leigh Eric Schmidt, a writer with Graham’s American Monthly observed in 1849, ”Saint Valentine’s Day … is becoming, nay it has become, a national holyday”.
There was no turning back and nowadays it is estimated that 190 million valentines are sent each year in the US.
At least 15 million electronic Valentine’s cards are sent each year. St Valentine’s Day is big business nowadays. In the US alone, the total amount spent for the day is a staggering $15.7bn.
Amazingly, the saint’s tomb — in which he is no doubt spinning — is located in Dublin. The Whitefriar Street Carmelites were given the saint’s body by Pope Gregory XVI in 1835.
The remarkable donation came after a famous 19th Century preacher attached to the church, Fr John Spratt, visited Rome. His powers of preaching apparently inspired the pope to donate the saint’s body to Dublin.
While other churches still make competing claims to the saint’s remains, the Dublin Carmelites appear to have the most convincing ‘legal title’.
They have a letter from the Vatican confirming the donation of ”the blessed body of St Valentine, martyr, which we ourselves by the command of the most Holy Father Pope Gregory XVI on the 27th day of December 1835, have taken out of the cemetery of St Hippolytus in the Tiburtine Way”.
The Dublin shrine to the saint remains a popular draw for couples. On February 14, many couples gather for Eucharistic celebrations that include a blessing of rings for those soon to be married.
On the feast day, the reliquary is placed before the altar in the church and venerated at the Masses.
While St Valentine’s Day has become a largely commercial affair, quite far removed from its original meaning, some very nice traditions have developed around it. For example, primary school children often make cards for their teachers and parents.
Likewise, parents often give cards to their children of the opposite sex, to remind them how much they are loved.
I for one am looking especially forward this year to the honour of giving my one-year-old daughter her very first Valentine’s card — which no doubt I will be buying at my local Esso garage late on the evening of February 13, along with several other panicked forgetful men.
That many splendid thing
Since ancient times, philosophers have discerned the existence of various types of love. These were famously examined by C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves which explores the nature of the four most classical types of love: Storge, Philia, Eros and Agape.
St Valentine’s Day has come to be associated with Eros, which is romantic love.
Originally, the day was probably associated with Agape, which is linked to the idea of charity and unconditional love, and is defined in Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia as being ”manifested when one person has much to give to another more needy. It is generous self-donation without concern for reward.” Agape is thought of as the highest form of love, and as related to the love of God.
Storge is a type of love that, hopefully, all of us have known: familial love. Storge is the Greek word for ‘natural affection’, such as that which flows between a parent and a child, or a brother and sister.
Philia is the love that exists between close friends. C.S. Lewis said: ”Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”
In Greek mythology, Eros was the god of love. The Roman equivalent of Eros was Cupid. While words like ‘erotic’ are derived from Eros, some thinkers say that the concept does not necessarily refer to sexual love, but can occur in any passionate or intense friendship.
In popular parlance, this sort of intense non-sexual friendship between men is sometimes called a ‘bromance.’
People can also love music, art, nature or particular places that are special to them. Some people love silence, others the hustle and bustle of big cities. Love, it seems, is a phenomenon that can come in many guises. It’s often thought of as a fluffy, feel-good concept, but loving can sometimes be a deeply challenging task.
Loving our enemies is perhaps the most challenging task of all. In Matthew 5:43-46 we are told: ”You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love (agape) your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love (agape) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?”’
During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there were many almost superhuman instances where bereaved families managed to immediately forgive the killers of their loved ones, and asked for their death to result in no others.
Family activities: Celebrating St Valentine’s Day
Serve up a heart-shaped cake. Or, for dinner, each person in the family can have their own heart shaped pastry, covered in homemade tomato sauce and their favourite toppings. Dessert can feature smaller heart-shaped biscuits decorated with tiny sweets and sprinkles. Older children can make chocolate fudge.
Help young children to write a love letter to those they care about. Even in this day of easy communications through texting and email, there is something really special about a letter. Another option is to make a ‘heart card’ for mammy.
Fold a sheet of thin card in half. Draw a large heart in the front and write ‘Mammy’ in block letters on top. Cover the heart with glue and stick on small strips of foil, coloured.
Younger children can dictate a letter and enclose a drawing with it. These can feature amusing love poems, such as:
I love you,
I love you,
I love you so well,
If I had a peanut
I’d give you the shell.
Before parents have their romantic time together when the children are in bed, the smaller children might like to have a few friends around for some fun.
Perhaps organise a teddy bears’ party where each child brings along their best-loved and, usually most bedraggled, soft toy.
A dolls’ tea set or a picnic set can be used. Food can comprise a few suitable cookies from the supermarket. Why not try marmalade sandwiches, (Paddington’s favourite) or Honey sandwiches, (Pooh Bear’s favourite)?
Health matters: The chemistry of attraction
Dr Andrea Fitzgerald
Historical findings have shown that for all peoples, in all moments in history, fellowship, family and romantic love were an intrinsic part of society.
Since the time of Socrates and Plato, poets, scholars, physicians and scientists have tried to discover and describe why we love, what love feels like, and whether there is a physiological basis for these feelings.
Love remains something of a mystery to science, but there are said to be three phases to romantic love, as described by anthropologist Helen Fisher in 2004: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment.
Lust is a chemical response, thought to be aided by neurotransmitters and hormones including nerve growth factor, testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, noradrenalin, serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin.
Testosterone seems to play a large part in feelings of lust: men are generally accepted have a higher ‘sex drive’ than women due, at least in part, to higher levels of testosterone.
However, a male’s libido peaks in his 20s, when testosterone levels are highest, whereas a woman’s libido does not seem to drop so dramatically.
This is because as a woman’s oestrogen levels diminish in middle age, her testosterone levels become unopposed, and so stay relatively higher.
Researchers took a group of ‘madly in love’ students and looked at their brains with a MRI scanner. They saw that, unlike feelings of friendship, which lights up various, large areas of the brain, being in love lights up a very small area of the brain.
Being in love seems to up the areas that also correspond to ‘gut feelings’, and to addictions such as to cocaine. So being in love really is an addiction.
Some researchers have hypothesised that the romantic love phase shares similar chemical traits to the manic phase of bipolar disorder, or to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It is certainly true that feelings of love — especially when reciprocated — send messages to our ‘pleasure and reward’ centre of the brain. Being in love is a feeling we want to repeat, as it makes us feel good.
Research has repeatedly shown that the ‘romantic love phase’ chemicals remain elevated for a maximum of two to four years, even in couples who still feel very much in love well beyond this.
The long-term attachment phase of being in love can go on indefinitely, and involves high levels of the related drugs oxytocin and vasopressin, well after the other hormones have diminished. They also activate different parts of the brain to those lit up in the love-addict romantic phase.
Oxytocin is known as the ‘friendship hormone’. It is released when people hold hands, hug, or snuggle on the sofa. It is also released in massive amounts when a woman gives birth, and when she breast-feeds.
This makes perfect sense: you could not possibly continue to care for your child properly if your brain was seeking a ‘reward’ for those selfless, loving acts such as night feeds and changing dirty nappies.
Oxytocin has also been shown to increase trust in others, and gives a feeling of calm when released. Interestingly, testosterone levels are suppressed by oxytocin and vasopressin. This is thought to be a clever way of curtailing feelings of wanderlust, to help cement a long-term bond.
Of course, you need more than mere chemistry to maintain strong, loving bonds with a partner: culture, religion, previous experience and hard work help too!