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Why ‘Valentine’s Day’?

Friday will be Valentine’s Day again, February 14, the day dedicated to lovers.

So how did the name of an early Christian martyr get linked with a day when websites and shop windows everywhere use that name to boost sales and make profits? What has it to do with romantic love, if anything?

Several different and conflicting stories exist which may refer to different people, but more probably to the same person. One for example describes a priest who dared to disobey the Claudius II, the Roman emperor, and secretly married Christian couples, so that the husbands could avoid conscription at a time when the empire needed more soldiers. As a reminder to the men of their vows and of God’s love, Valentine gave them hearts cut out from parchment.

Other accounts make Valentine (derived from valens [strong, worthy, healthy]) a priest in Rome, or a bishop in Umbria, central Italy, who was put under house arrest by a judge named Asterius. In response to Valentine’s efforts to convince him that Jesus was God’s son, the judge brought his adopted daughter, who was blind and deaf, to his prisoner challenging him to demonstrate God’s reality by healing her. Valentine prayed for the girl, laid his hands on her eyes and she was healed.

Valentine then told the judge, deeply impressed by what he had just seen, to rid his house of all idols, fast for three days and be baptised. The judge obeyed, freed all Christian prisoners under his authority, and was baptized along with forty-four members of his household.

‘From your Valentine’

Persisting in his evangelism, Valentine found himself arrested again and brought before Claudius II, the emperor in Rome, who at first admired his prisoner. But when Valentine tried to convince the him to become a Christian, the emperor commanded him to renounce his faith or be beaten with clubs and beheaded. Valentine refused and so was executed on February 14, 269. But not before writing a note to Asterius’ daughter, signed ‘from your Valentine’, the origin of today’s romantic messages.

On the first anniversary of the engagement between King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia (both only 14 at the time), Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th century English writer famous for his Canterbury Tales, wrote a poem linking the engagement date with Valentine’s Day:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. [“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]

Mid-February was seen as the start of the natural mating season which, since Chaucer, has been hitched to the romance of Valentine.

Marriage Week

This week, ending in Valentine’s Day, is designated in a growing number of countries as Marriage Week, a week to give special attention to one’s marriage relationship.

My friend Richard Kane, founder of Marriage Week, is fond of saying: ‘If you are fortunate to be in a marriage, you should look after it.’ Men recognise the importance of maintaining their cars, he notes, doing repairs and having regular check-ups. Why should that be more important than ‘marriage-maintenance’?

Some years ago, Richard was standing in the checkout line at a home improvement store watching couples purchasing expensive items to improve their homes. How much do these couples spend on improving their marriages? he wondered.

This thought led Richard and his wife Maria to launch the idea of an annual Marriage Week, a time to say ‘Wake up! Marriage is a great idea’, and, for those who are married, a time to remember why they fell in love in the first place. He is convinced that marriage is a brilliant institution that all of society should celebrate.  Since a healthy marriage is a skill, he says, we should all learn some new skills to turn our marriages from good to very good. A great marriage can be learnt, he insists; just the same way as a person can learn to read a book or drive a car.

Healthy marriage creates stability and security for couples (along with plenty of fun and laughter), adds Richard. Marriage adds a stability premium to couples that is difficult to ignore. From a spiritual, physical, financial and statistical perspective, marriage provides the best possible environment for a healthy relationship to develop. In other words, it is the best choice a couple can make, he argues.

This week, thousands of local events are happening across Europe in bars, restaurants, community halls and churches, celebrating marriage and educating couples how to have a better relationship. Information about Marriage Week activities in various countries can be found on the Marriage Week International website.

Meanwhile, why not make time this week to:

1. speak out appreciation for each other;

2. recall what made you first fall in love;

3. ask, what makes your relationship special?

Jeff Fountain

Schuman Centre for European Studies

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