The day is upon us, St. Valentine's Day—a curious combination of Christian and pagan symbols and traditions—when you have the opportunity to win your beloved's heart, or totally blow it.
From a man's perspective, it's another one of those Hallmark holidays, and not even a real holiday at that—government workers don't even get the day off. But if there's a woman in your life it's a day you ought to take seriously.
In their typical last-minute rush to buy cards and flowers, few men likely consider what all the fuss is about. That knowledge probably won't do you any good if you fail to meet your beloved's expectations, but here it is anyway.
As with love itself, the origins of St. Valentine's Day are somewhat obscure and mysterious, but some accounts have it that the holiday we celebrate today originates from pagan traditions and retains pagan symbols, perhaps to the delight of "The Da Vinci Code" aficionados.
There are various legends, but one of the most common has it that St. Valentine's Day originated from the ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia, which was held in mid-winter each year and was somehow tied in with the sacred place the wolf held in Roman culture. How the wolf became linked to romantic love is unclear, but it may have something to do with the she-wolf that nurtured and suckled Romulus and Remus, Rome's legendary founders.
Anyway, each year for Lupercalia, young Roman maidens would place their names written on cards in a jar. In somewhat of the ancient Roman version of a dating service, young Roman men would draw a card and the maiden selected would become their "partner" for the year.
This custom didn't go over well with church authorities when Christianity became the Roman state religion. In the 5th century, the tradition was modified to be more in line with the new Christian morals.
Instead of drawing a woman's name from the jar, young Roman men would draw the name of a saint, whose virtues they were then supposed to emulate for a full year. History doesn't seem to record how the young Roman men felt about this, but we can venture a pretty good guess. In any event, the practice was eventually abolished, albeit several hundred years later.
The Roman Catholic Church tends to ignore this legend and instead ties the holiday to the martyrdom of St. Valentine. So, who was St. Valentine? The historical record is not clear, and there are several candidates, various men with Valentine-type names who did saintly things in their lives. But the most popular candidate is a priest named Valentinus.
According to the story, in the 3rd century the Roman Emperor Claudius II was in dire need of soldiers for his legions, but was having trouble recruiting men because they didn't want to leave their wives and families. So, being a typical tyrant, Claudius outlawed new marriages. Valentinus defied this edict and continued to perform the ceremonies. Unhappy about that, Claudius had Valentinus thrown into prison and executed, presumably on Feb. 14.
There are other legends associated with the origins of St. Valentine's Day.
One has it that in 14th-century France and England, young knights would draw a woman's name by lottery and become her champion or knight-errant for the next year. The name would be written on a heart, a common heraldic device, that the knight would wear on his arm—hence the modern-day phase of "wearing one's heart on a sleeve."
The medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer tells us that Feb. 14 is the day each year when birds pair up to mate.
Somehow, these customs and beliefs evolved into St. Valentine's Day and the annual exchange of valentine cards, which didn't become a big deal until the 19th century and continue today as the holiday's most popular practice. According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, 1 billion valentine cards are exchanged each year in the United States alone.
Regardless of the origins of the holiday—pagan, Christian or a combination of both—that's a lot of valentines. And many of them depict a character that is undeniably pagan in origin.
Cupid, the cute little winged guy who shoots his arrows at would-be lovers, was the Roman god of love. To the ancient Greeks he was known as Eros, from where we derive the words "erotic" and "erotica."
Whatever your taste in love, Cupid had arrows to fit the occasion. The story has it he shot golden arrows to precipitate romantic love and arrows of lead for purely lustful encounters.
You might want to take that into consideration when shopping for a valentine for the woman of your fancy.