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Currents: why we celebrate

A Day of Love

by Amber Cronin '11

Even in February, when snow and ice cover the land, there's a warm spot right in the middle of the month, a time of sweet thoughts and deeds, of chocolate and flowers to remind us of spring, and of love honored, or wished for. It's Valentine's Day, and whether you embrace or ignore this amorous holiday, it is one steeped in history and mystery.

Here at Colby-Sawyer, an accompanying tradition is Winter Carnival, which this year played out with a rock concert by Recycled Percussion, an energetic drumming romp that was more throw-your-hands-in-the-air than holding hands; an improv comedy show that lightened the mood of all those serious lovers; and a “Night in Paris” semi-formal that let the emotion flow forth.

But where did all the hearts and notes of affection come from? And why, if “love is a fruit in season at all times, and within the reach of every hand,” as Mother Theresa declared, do we have a full-blown celebration of love only on one designated day?

The answer is surprisingly political and violent, and can be traced to one man's faith and conviction.

The Origins of St. Valentine's Day

Italy is known for passion, and Rome is the birthplace of the holiday we now celebrate as St. Valentine's Day. It is estimated that as early as the fourth century B.C., the Church fathers were searching for a new ritual to replace their current once-a-year lottery-style mate selection. This rite of passage was a tribute to the god Lupercus, and involved placing the names of young women into a box and having the men draw one - thus choosing their female partner for the year. This mid-February festival, known as the Lupercian festival, was outlawed in 496 A.D. by Pope Gelasius and was replaced by St. Valentine's Day.

The story of Valentine, the bishop of Interamna, also begins in Rome with an edict from Emperor Claudius II. Claudius outlawed marriage, claiming that married men made poor soldiers because they were unwilling to leave their families behind for battle. It is said that Valentine would invite young men and women to come to him in secret in order to be married, and when Claudius heard of this, he ordered Valentine brought to his palace.

Claudius attempted to convert the bishop to believe in the Roman gods, in order to save him from certain execution. Valentine refused to renounce his Christian beliefs, and after several attempts at conversion by the emperor, he was clubbed, stoned and beaten to death on Feb. 14, 270 A.D.

The Church believed the symbol of Valentine was the best option to overthrow the popularity of the Lupercian festival, and in 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius outlawed the old festival. Not all the fun of the festival was lost, however, as the Pope retained the festival's lottery box and exchanged the women's names with the names of the saints. The men and women still drew names from the box, but this time, instead of drawing a mate, they drew the name of the saint whose life they were required to emulate for the next year. This was a much different game, and the new “festival” was overseen by the patron saint of love, St. Valentine.

The Valentine's Day Card

Legend has it that while Valentine was in prison and awaiting his execution, he fell in love with the blind daughter of the jail keeper, Asterius, and because of his unwavering faith, he restored her sight. In Valentine's farewell message to her he penned the words “From Your Valentine,” a phrase that lives on through today. In the tradition of the Lupercian festival, men would send hand-written greetings to the women they intended to court on Feb. 14, and the tradition continued with St. Valentine's Day. In the 18th century, the card-sending craze exploded. Cards were mostly hand-made, oversized and very elaborate, while store-bought cards were smaller and much more costly. The craze became so large that in 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man's Valentine's Writer, a book containing sentimental verses for the young man unable to compose his own message for his lady.

Over time, printers began producing limited numbers of cards bearing cute little verses and pictures commonly called “mechanical valentines.” A reduction in the postage rate in the United States brought about the much less personal, yet easier, practice of mailing the Valentine's Day cards, making it much easier to send cards anonymously to someone.

Traditions Around the Globe

In Italy, where it all began, it has become a tradition for couples to become engaged on Valentine's Day.

The Scottish have a celebration much like the original Luprecian festival for which singles gather for a party. Each individual writes his or her name on a piece of paper and puts it into a hat, one hat for women, another for men. The women draw first, followed by the men. The man is expected to pair up with the woman who has drawn his name and present her with a small gift. The woman pins the man's name to their sleeve or over their heart.

The Chinese celebrate Valentine's Day according to the date on the Chinese calendar, the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. On this day lovers crowd the Temple of Matchmaker to pray for love and happiness; single men and women also gather there to pray.

In the Philippines, thousands of people gather to break the world record of most people kissing at one time, an event which has become known as Lovapalooza.

The Taiwanese observe two celebrations of Valentine's Day, one on Feb. 14 and the other on July 7. On these two days, it is traditional to exchange roses. The colors and numbers of these roses have special significance, for example, one rose means “only love” and 11 means “a favorite.” The Taiwanese designate “forever” with 99 roses, and 100 d roses is equal to a marriage proposal.

Here on the Hill

Saturday's “A Night in Paris” dance was filled with couples dancing the night away, gearing up for the big day. With an Eiffel Tower silhouette in the background, and couples dancing on the floor, love is clearly in the air here on the hill.

As far as what couples are planning for Thursday, some are not planning to do anything, while others have penciled in big dinner dates and quality time with their sweetie. One thing is for sure, Thursday night will be filled with love here at Colby-Sawyer and around the world.

Amber Cronin is a Colby-Sawyer College student who writes for College Communications.