Features

Valentine's Day

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By D.R. Bartlette
Fayetteville Free Weekly

As holidays go, Valentine’s Day just doesn’t fit in. Sure, we have secular holidays to honor mothers, fathers, veterans and even administrative professionals. And although these holidays generally require the purchase of flowers or a dinner out, they are tame, family-friendly affairs.
Valentine’s Day doesn’t fit in with any religious holidays, either. Most of these can be observed in a church or with your family over a big dinner.
But, Valentine’s Day is the one holiday devoted to love, romance and, yes, sex — not exactly the kinds of things associated with the church. Despite cutesy classroom parties with pink cupcakes and chalky conversation hearts, Valentine’s Day is a decidedly adult holiday.
The background on Valentine’s Day is sketchy at best. Officially, Pope Gelasius declared St. Valentine’s Day as a church holiday in 498 C.E. The problem is, there were at least three St. Valentines that it could have been named for. The most popular choice was a priest who lived in the 3rd century C.E.
The Roman Emperor Claudius, seeing how lovesick his soldiers were when separated from their wives on long campaigns, declared marriage illegal. St. Valentine, defying the emperor, married young couples in secret. St. Valentine was captured and ordered to be executed.
While he was in jail, many of the couples he had married would visit him, leaving gifts and flowers. Legend has it that during his imprisonment, St. Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. As he was being led to his execution on Feb. 14, he passed a note to the woman he loved and signed it, “Your Valentine.”
Some think the holiday has much older origins — going back to the Roman Lupercalia, usually celebrated around Feb. 13-15. The holiday was a purification and fertility ritual involving a goat sacrifice and some light lashing — a far cry from today’s tender rites. There was rumored to be a sex lottery associated with this holiday as well — all the single women put their names into a large urn for the local bachelors to draw — but scholars say there is no real evidence for this.
It turns out that Valentine’s Day may be the creation of — who else? — a poet. Not just any poet, mind you, but Geoffrey Chaucer. Before Chaucer’s time in the High Middle Ages, there was no connection between St. Valentine’s Day and romantic love. In fact, the first recorded association between the two was in Chaucer’s 1382 “Parlement of Foules”:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/When every bird cometh there to chase his mate.”
In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day didn’t really get popular until the 17th century. Back then, there was a custom of drawing lots; when you drew someone’s name, you had to give them a gift and a title, such as: “Most Courteous and Most Faire.” One superstition held that the first single person of the opposite sex that you met on St. Valentine’s Day morning was destined to become your spouse.
By the mid-18th century, it was common for friends and lovers to exchange tokens of affection, and by the end of that century, printed valentines had replaced handwritten notes. It was around 1847 that Esther Howland of Worcester, Mass., made the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper and lace. Now, according to the American Greeting Card Association, Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas in greeting-card sales.
The heart symbol found on most valentines became popular in Victorian times. As a symbol for love, and the human heart, it is enigmatic. It looks nothing like a human heart, so why is it called a “heart” and associated with love?
There are at least two theories on its origins. One theory states that it comes from Africa — the shape strongly resembles the shape of the seed pod of the plant silphium. Silphium was used as a contraceptive and was so popular that it was harvested into extinction. Another theory states that the heart shape isn’t meant to represent a heart, but rather the vulva. Either way, it seems as though this symbol was originally associated with a very different organ than the one it is now.
Like Christmas has Santa Claus, Valentine’s Day has Cupid, the Roman god of erotic love and beauty. Said to be the son of Venus, Roman goddess of love, and Mars, Roman god of war, he is usually portrayed as a baby or child. Sometimes he’s shown blindfolded, as a metaphor for the idea that “love is blind.” He is said to be fickle and playful, and he delights in playing pranks on unsuspecting humans and gods. He carries two sets of arrows: one gold-tipped set, which inspires love, and one lead-tipped set, which inspires hatred.
The Greeks and Romans also associated red roses with their goddesses of love and sex, and since ancient times, the rose has been a symbol of love and beauty — a fitting gift for a romantic occasion.
Chocolate came to us from the Aztecs of central Mexico. It was called xocolatl (pronounced shock-o-LOT-el) and was associated with Xochiquetzal (pronounced sho-chee-KET-zel), the Aztec goddess of fertility. The Spaniards brought chocolate back to Europe in the 16th century, and it quickly became a favorite in the royal palaces and courts.
It has long been thought to be an aphrodisiac — the emperor Montezuma was said to eat copious amounts of cocoa beans to fuel his romantic exploits. According to the New York Times, chocolate contains two chemicals that may contribute to its spicy reputation. One, tryptophan, is a building block of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in sexual arousal. The other, phenylethylamine, a stimulant related to amphetamine, is released in the brain when people fall in love.
Its aphrodisiac effects, however, have not been verified. According to the New York Times, most researchers believe that those chemicals are present in amounts too small to have any measurable effect on arousal. Perhaps, researchers believe, chocolate’s arousing qualities are more psychological than physical. Or, perhaps it’s simply due to the sensual pleasure of eating it.
As for the heart-shaped box they come in, Richard Cadbury, son of the founder of Cadbury’s, is credited with its invention in 1868.
Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K., France and Australia. It is a $14 billion industry, with some 180 million red roses, 36 million heart-shaped boxes of candy and 1 billion cards purchased each year.
What do you plan to do for your sweetie? What do you think about Valentine’s Day in general? Respond at www.freeweekly.com

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