Valentine’s Day Ambivalence

by J. Michael Utzinger
Those familiar with Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Consumer Rites (1995) certainly know that Valentine’s Day has been big business in the United States since the 1840s.  What interests me is the ambivalence with which religious Americans have greet this particular holiday.  It seems that religious individuals and groups use occasions like Valentine’s Day to express their discomfort with Christians generally, Catholics particularly, and the transforming power of the cultural (and economic) marketplace.  It also would appear that anything with the name of a saint or embraces love (broadly defined) has the potential to be sanctified, especially by marketers anxious to make a buck.-

None of this is new.  Take this small blurb from the Western Christian Advocate (10 February 1879):

  It Is very fitting that the men and women who add notes of grace and beauty to the song of life should be remembered as the ages pass, and that, year by year, some day should be set apart forever sacred to their names. That they belonged to another sect than ours cannot bar them out or the temples of our hearts, in which we venerate their memory. Perhaps their legend has almost vanished: who may tell the tale of old "Saint Valentine?" We only know that, in the calendar of the Catholic Church, the 14th of February is observed as his "'day"— and that, according to tradition, cherished from century to century, he was a presbyter in the diocese of Tortosa, was arrested and Imprisoned by Emperor Claudius, who sought, by aid of Asterius, to shake his faith in Jesus, and win him back to the worship of the older gods. But good Valentine, it is said, brought sight to the blind daughter of Asterius, and, instead of being convinced of error, converted Asterius and baptized his entire family. The emperor, indignant at Valentine's defiance, commanded his minions to beat him with clubs and behead him. And so, on the famous Flaminian Road, on the 14th of February, Valentine was executed. Perhaps, however, the day is observed, not so much in honor of the martyr, but as a "Galentin" Day— "galentin" having its root in the word "galant." Now "galant" means "honest, tasteful, genteel"— and "galanteric" means politeness, compliment. If, then, the 14th day of February is the day of "galentin," it ought to be a day of politeness, honesty, gentility, tastefulness— the more so that, in the beginning, it was a day In which lovers sent their sweethearts bits of verse, expressing their love — a day of heart affairs, in which men and women, under the beautiful guiding of affection, opened to each other the sacred wishes of the pure life. As such, the day is beautiful in its meaning; but Instead of honesty, gentility, there is now dishonesty, discourtesy, craft— and abuse of the post-office. Instead of dainty missives, breathing pure affection, there are coarse caricatures; and instead of heart-joy, there is pain. Why may there not be a revival of a truer Saint Valentine's Day— an honoring of the old saint, whose gracious ministry brought happiness to home and hearth— an exchange of sweet and sacred expressions of love- even the husband giving to his wife some tenderer word of love, so that the joy of life may be shared with deeper gladness?—H

A cursory observation would reveal that “H” thought this holiday, well into its popular heights during the late Victorian era in the United States, was redeemable despite the inconvenient fact that Valentine was a Catholic saint or that popular practices seemed to lead to the degradation of personal morals or public institutions. One time-honored strategy for dismissing the religious efficaciousness of the holiday is connecting with “pagan” rituals, in particular the Lupercalia.  A quick Google search (and admittedly only that) brought up Ted Olsen’s blog on Christianity Today website, entitled “Then Again Maybe Don’t Be My Valentine: Does Saint Valentine’s Day Have Its Origins in Christian Tradition?” (1 February 2000).  Says Olsen,
There are more tales of the "origins" of Valentine's Day than arrows in Cupid's quiver. As expected, most have something to do with pagan ritual (pretty much every holiday—from Christmas to Mother's Day—has something to do with pagan ritual). Four centuries before Christ, Romans had a day called Lupercalia. Without going too much into it, I'll sum it up as a sexual lottery. Pull names out of a box at random and couple with a young member of the opposite sex. After a year, you get to pick another name.  Supposedly, this went on for centuries until the Christians had to go and ruin it with their whole morality thing.

A short piece on National Public Radio last year essentially said the same thing; although, they were less parochial and more convinced.  I will admit to you, I see little to connect the rituals of fertility connected with Lupercalia with the romantic themes of St. Valentine’s Day.  It is true that the saint’s feast day was February 14th and, around the fourteenth century, become associated with traditions of drawing lots between young men and women in places like Germany and Italy.  It is also true that Lupercalia took place between 13-15th of February and was connected with a fertility ritual.  However, it would take the worst sort of Frazerian interpretation to assume that rituals that seem alike in theme (but take place in different historical contexts) or have overlapping times must suggest a common origin, let alone the same meaning.
So, from where does this tenacious association come?  In his article “St. Valentine. Chaucer, and Spring in February” (Speculum 1981: 539) Jack B. Oruch argued that one of the major culprits was Francis Douce’s Illustrations of Shakespeare and of Ancient Manners.  I have seen Douce cited countless times in 19th and early 20th century American periodicals discussing the origins of Valentine’s Day.   First published 1807, Douce argued that Valentine’s Day was a survival of the Lupercalia.  Douce cited Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints (first published between 1756-1759) as his source for the Valentine’s Day-Lupercalia connection.  Butler, for his part, simply credited individuals like Francis de Sales, for abolishing "the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls in honour of their goddess Februta Juno, on the 15th of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets given on this day."   Oruch considered Butler's association of Valentine's Day with Roman pagan ritual based on "confused knowledge" or "pious fantasy."  Such scholarly evaluation has not stopped American Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Neo-Pagans from uncritically repeating this association to persuade their co-religionists to participate or not in the trappings of this holiday.  (Simply search the religion of your choice with the terms Valentine's Day and Lupercalia to see the array advice). Equally interesting as the pious opposition to Valentine’s Day are the ways in which religious folk have accommodated this holiday.   The blogosphere is littered with counsel for anxious or ambivalent religious readers.   One Jewish blogger writes that Valentine’s Day can be celebrated by Jews and is different than Christmas or Easter: 

We do honor love, which is what Valentine’s Day celebrates. From “Love your neighbor as yourself” to “Arise, my love, my fair one,” love is a deep and central value of Judaism and the Jewish people. And there is nothing wrong with a day to especially exalt a value we cherish all year.  So, I understand and respect those Jews who do not wish to celebrate Valentine’s Day due to a religious objection.  But I urge them to make sure their significant others share this view… before they have to Talmudically debate their way out of the doghouse on February 15.

A Muslim blogger, expressing discomfort with anti-Valentine protests of his co-religionists, suggests:
We can redefine the meaning of modern cultural trends … without rejecting them. Instead of closing doors, we should work on welcoming modern traditions with open minds.   If we approach the holiday as a celebration Valentine’s Day should be just another excuse to spread the love that Islam encourages. And this doesn’t mean that you need a significant other to celebrate love; you can express your love to your family, find an excuse to send flowers to your friends, do something fun at your school or make a difference for your country.

Given that the modern expressions of this holiday are primarily expressed in terms of “love” and “giving,” ideas that can with very little help be adapted to service the ideologies of just about any religion, we should not be surprised that the marketplace has risen to the challenge to help individuals express their love with a religious hue.   Squidoo markets Valentine possibilities for your religious significant other.   The site acknowledges that many religious individuals oppose the celebration of Valentine’s Day, but then it undercuts such admonitions with a proclamation of religious individualism: “It is up to us how we would like to celebrate a particular festival and how much we spend celebrating it. Valentine's Day is one of the few festivals which transcends boundaries of Religion and is Celebrated the world over. Let's enjoy it the best way we can - with due respect to local norms and sensitivities.”  Having proclaimed the religious efficaciousness of the holiday, the blog makes clear that one should be free to purchase items for that religious someone special.   It would seem that any religion can be molded to indulge in Valentine’s Day consumption: “Kamadeva carries a Sugarcane Bow and Floral Arrow, and like his Roman counterpart Cupid - the arrows give birth to desire.” “Al Wadud - The Loving is one of the 99 names of Allah revealed in the Quran. Isn't that a nice Muslim thought for Valentine's Day?”
“Wicca Jewelry for Valentine’s Day”
“Valentine’s Day has become a popular day all over the world: people of all religions celebrate it, including Jews of course. Traditionally Jews celebrate love at Tu B'Av, a celebration that falls in early August or late July. Those hot summer months are perfect for a wedding, for instance. On this page you'll find love gifts for your Jewish guy, whether you celebrate Valentines or Tu B'Av.”
“Jesus showed us a way that is simple, yet it isn't followed by many individuals. Let's try and be innocent and full of love again. Hope you will like Valentine's Day Religious and Spiritual gifts for Christian women showcased on this page.”

While it is easy to see why retailers would like to make Valentine’s Day safe and acceptable for the religious, it may be less obvious why many religious individuals find such tokens efficacious.  In Material Christianity (1995), Coleen McDannell reminds us “the visual, sensual, and tactile form of the object offers and immediacy that that ideas do not always have” (p. 233).  This is especially true of religious ideas and for cultural expression of concepts like “romance” and “love.”  That retailers recognize this and can exploit it perhaps speaks to the truth of McDannell’s claim more than anything else.
                Valentine’s Day is a window into the way religious individuals and institutions ambivalently engage popular cultural practices generally and mass marketed holidays specifically.  So, whether you intend to indulge, protest, or just observe, take moment this February 14th to appreciate the genuinely complex behaviors of your religious neighbors.


Anonymous said…
Valentine’s Day is the best occasion to mix romance and spiritualism. Some simple spiritual gift items like cross pendant look stylish and trendy while conveying the religion of the person wearing it. Instead of discouraging people from celebrating the day of love, the spiritual leaders must encourage them to combine both romance and spiritualism.

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