Saint Valentine became the inspiration for a February 14 Roman festival during which young Romans wrote affectionate greetings to girls they liked or simply wished to enslave. This went on for hundreds of years until "Saint Hallmark of the Mall" appeared on the scene.
While Valentine's Day is one of America's most celebrated occasions, it's also the holiday least connected to its historical roots. Every February 14, classroom walls are decorated with paper hearts and semi-naked underage predators, armed to the gums with bows and sharp projectiles. (And you thought Miley Cyrus sent a bad message).
Local stores celebrate exuberantly with cheap jewelry, heart-shaped placemats, heart-shaped night lights, heart-themed pajamas, and enough chocolate to keep dentists in business through 2020. A trip through the Valentine aisle of your local drugstore proves that nothing says "Happy Valentine's Day" more than, say, a red Power Ranger delivering a roundhouse kick into a squid monster's groin with the caption: "Hope your day is a real KICK, Valentine!"
But these things have as much to do with Saint Valentine as underwear sales have to do with President's Day (well, depending on the president). Actual Valentine's Day lore is rich with sacrifice, generosity, and blind love. Think Braveheart meets When Harry Met Sally. The story goes something like this:
Around the year 270, Emperor Claudius II banned marriages because he decided single men made better soldiers than married men. (It's understandable because single men can use both their hands for fighting, whereas married men always need one hand free to hold the remote.)
Well, a third-century priest named Valentine thought that was pretty bogus, and started performing illegal marriages waaaaaaay before performing illegal marriages became all the rage. (Take that, San Francisco!)
Valentine, "friend of lovers," got tossed in the slammer for his trouble, but met a charming young blind woman (as is often the case with the newly-incarcerated). He miraculously healed her blindness, after which the girl immediately exclaimed, "Hey, I thought you said you looked like George Clooney!"
Unfazed, he wrote her a farewell message, signed: "from your Valentine." The phrase stuck with us forever. Not so everlasting was Val, who was executed on February 24, 270.
This paved the way to Patron Sainthood, and "Saint Valentine" became the inspiration for a February 14 Roman festival during which young Romans wrote affectionate greetings to girls they liked or simply wished to enslave. This went on for hundreds of years until "Saint Hallmark of the Mall" appeared on the scene, charged a couple of bucks for foldable cardboard, and reduced every tender thought between romantic couples into trite rhyming couplets. The rest is history. For more details, check out VH-1's I Love the 270's!
When I shared the true story with my kids, they handled it well, especially after I recast the blind woman as a beautiful princess and Saint Valentine as a Jedi Knight (you have to cater to your audience). As for me, I'm inspired me to break with modern tradition, do what Val would have done, and celebrate Valentine's Day with the reverence it
If all goes well, I may bring sight to a couple of blind people just for the heck of it.
Joel Schwartzberg is an award-winning freelance writer and screenwriter whose essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Star Ledger, and The Huffington Post. His collection of essays on parenting, The 40-Year-Old Version, will be published in June. More information about it can be found at www.divorceddadbook.com.