A life devoid of love is a flower blooming in the wilderness, With nobody to enjoy its fragrance - Kabir Ji, Gauri Rag
Love it or loathe it, Valentine's Day is almost upon us, but it gives all of us pause for thought, whether loved-up or not, unhappily single or unhappily married, or happily single and happily married.
Nobody knows the exact origin of the annual festival of romance that hits us every February 14. Wikipedia cites several myths, and here's the one I find most interesting. Valentine's Day was originally intended for celebration as the feast of St Valentine, and that it began as a liturgical celebration for one or more of the early Christian saints known as Valentinus. It struck me as very strange that one of the best known saints on the Christian calendar – at the heart of a holiday devoted to romantic love – was actually supposedly a martyr for the Christian saints.
In fact, the legend goes that St Valentine was in prison for performing weddings to soldiers who were forbidden to marry, and for ministering to Christians who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. According to legend, he healed his jailer's daughter, Asterius, and wrote her a letter signed 'Your Valentine' as a farewell. If this version of the origins of Valentine's Day are true, then St Valentine died it would seem, for love but not the romantic sort as we might think, and so it's slightly ironic that this day is now symbolised with a pagan god, Cupid. It is a later version of the story that says he fell in love with the jailer's daughter but no one can really know for sure.
The reason behind the date of 14 February is believed to lie in a pre-Christian pagan festival celebrated around this time in ancient Rome. Lupercalia was a festival of fertility, a time when men reportedly stripped down and went around spanking young women's bottoms with whips made out of goat or dog skin – all apparently as a way of improving their fertility.
Pope Gelasius sealed February 14 into the Christian calendar when he declared it to be St Valentine's Day around the year AD496. But its associations with romantic love did not start gaining ground until Geoffrey Chaucer's time in the Middle ages when he wrote in The Parlement of Foules (or The Parliament of Fowls) in 1381, "for this was on St Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."
It was not until later centuries that Valentine's Day turned into a time when lovers presented each other with flowers, confectionery and started to send each other notes and cards.
But what started out as elegant handwritten valentines popular in the 18th and 19th centuries has given way to mass-produced greeting cards and sickly red and pink-coloured merchandising.
The extent of the commercialisation led to its being known as the Hallmark holiday and for some this is the great turn off. Indeed, I know that most of my family and friends, whether single or not, actively avoid Valentine's aisles stacked with heart-shaped chocolates and champagne.
All myths and flowery, lace-edged cards aside, Valentine's should still be a day for hope, for people whose love for their spouse or partner may be wearing out, and hope for those who are actively looking for a partner.
On that note, there are saints for single people, too – Saint Emily and Saint Agatha, and here's a prayer I found to Saint Agatha: "Dear Virgin and Martyr, whom the Church recalls in her liturgy, you heroically resisted the temptations of a degenerate ruler. Subjected to long and horrible tortures, you remained faithful to your heavenly Spouse. Help us to be faithful that we will find an earthly love and love him as you have loved. Amen."
More recently, Valentine's Day has become a popular bonding opportunity for groups of single girls, incorporating with wine, chocolates, and watching the modern saint of singles, Bridget Jones on DVD. Provided it's a primarily positive gathering, it's not necessarily a bad thing – better to be with other people and celebrating some treasured girl-time. Valentine's Day could also be a chance for those who are single to renew their romantic dreams – love does happen!
But whether single or happily coupled up, it is surely an opportunity to be other-centred by encouraging co-workers and colleagues to serve others in the true spirit of St Valentine – even where that may come with a cost. Happy Valentine's Day!