Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine’s Day isn’t just a hoary myth woven from thin air

Tomorrow, February 14, is Valentine’s Day, so I’m yielding to the temptation of posting in the Forum an atmosphere piece I wrote in 2004 at about this time for my column in The Manila Times, “The real score about Valentine’s Day.” Of course, I perfectly understand that there’s absolutely no need to explain the vocabulary, grammar, and semantics of love, for we should all be intimately familiar with them by now. As for the genesis of and rationale for Valentine’s Day, however, I’m sure that most people—like me at the start—only have the vaguest idea. So I decided to look deeper into the matter to see if St. Valentine and Valentine’s Day are simply myths woven from thin air by calculating clerics trying to square love triangles, or perhaps just a clever marketing pitch by commercial interests out to make a fast buck from the lovers, the lovelorn, and the loveless—in sum, from all of us.

What I found out about Valentine’s Day, however, is something more elemental, more germinal, and more intriguing than I had ever imagined, and I couldn’t wait to share it with Forum members—before Valentine’s Day whizzes past us and leaves us breathless and pining for one more round of it next time next year.

So here’s my essay on my findings about Valentine’s Day…

The real score about Valentine’s Day

“If you must write about Valentine’s Day,” my wife Leonor admonished me the other day, “don’t be a spoilsport. By all means take a break from your grammar columns, but don’t try to take away the romance from Valentine’s.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Leonor,” I said, “I won’t be a spoilsport. Why would I want to do that? On the contrary, I want to tell lovers all over the world that they are right on target in doing the things they do on Valentine’s Day. I mean, you know, exchanging love tokens, whispering sweet nothings, having dinner by candlelight—good, old romance the way it should be.”

“Then you’ve got nothing really new to say,” she said. “You’ll just recycle the same old story that everybody recycles this time of year.”

“Not with this one, Leonor. I have a new thesis: that people should thank their lucky stars they can celebrate Valentine’s Day not so different from how the ancient Romans did it. As you know, those people started it all almost a thousand years before the Christian evangelists came to Europe. They had this much-awaited love festival on February 14, precisely the same day as today’s Valentine’s Day. It went by another name, of course. They called it the Lupercalia.”

“Umm...interesting,” Leonor said. “Tell me more about it.”

“The Lupercalia, in plain English, was the ‘Feast of the Wolf-God.’ It was an ancient fertility rite in honor of a god who protected sheep from the wolves. Its high point was a mating game, a lottery for young, unmarried men and women. The organizers would write the names of qualified, interested women on small pieces of parchment, then drop them into a big vase. Each qualified male drew one piece from the vase, and the woman whose name was on that piece became his date or ‘steady’ for one whole year.”

“That simple? Unacquainted couples were paired with no courtship, no legal and religious mumbo-jumbo?”

“Yes, Leonor, and they had a whole year to find out if they were temperamentally and sexually compatible. If they were, of course, they married and raised a family.”

“How wonderfully uncomplicated, but how unromantic! And my heart bleeds for the young couples that had an eye for each other beforehand. With, say, 1,000 women’s names in that lottery, the probability of a woman getting picked by a man she already liked would be next to zilch; so were the chances of a young man picking the woman he really liked. And the chances of a mutually attracted pair being mated? That’s 1/1,000 multiplied by 1/1,000 or one in a million, right?”

“Right, Leonor! A priori romances simply couldn’t bloom unless the partners decided to mutually violate the rules. But there was one good thing going for that lottery, I think: it leveled the playing field for love and procreation. It must have exquisitely churned and enriched the gene pool of the ancient Romans.”

“Maybe so, but don’t you think their ritual was so elemental, so...shall we say, ‘uncivilized’?”

“That’s saying it mildly, Leonor. It scandalized the early Christian missionaries. They found it decadent, immoral, and, of course, unchristian. So they tried to change it by frying it with its own fat, so to speak.”


“Well, the clerics simply revoked the practice of writing the names of young, unmarried women on the pieces of parchment. They wrote on them the names of the Christian saints instead. And you know what they offered to the young, unmarried man who picked the name of a particular saint?”


“The privilege of emulating the virtues of that saint for one whole year.”

“What spoilsports, those clerics! Why would any sensible lover whether male or female want to play that sort of game? For Pete’s sake, that lottery was for love and romance and chance encounters, not for sainthood!”

“That’s right, so the Romans resisted the new mechanics and stuck to the old. It was two centuries before the evangelists again tried to stamp out the Lupercalia in a big way. In 490 A.D., Pope Gelasius canonized a Roman by the name of Valentine. He was, by tradition, a priest martyred 220 years before for violating a ban on performing marriages during wartime. Valentine was stoned to death on a February 14, Lupercalia Day, so his feast day was conveniently made to coincide with it. In a sense, the clerics finally succeeded in Christianizing the ancient rites, but only in name and only edgewise, in a manner of speaking. As history would prove, no power on earth could stamp out its earthly and earthy attractions.”

‘You’ve got a lovely story there,” Leonor said, “and you kept your promise of not being a spoilsport. So Happy Valentine’s Day, my love!”

“For you, Leonor, Happy Lupercle’s Day just this once, OK?”


From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the February 13, 2004 issue of The Manila Times. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 145 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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