chaucer-courtly-love

Valentine’s Day, Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Mother’s Day and Fathers’ Day all fit the “Hallmark Holiday” definition of a holiday. The word “holiday” comes from the Old English word hāligdæg. The word originally referred only to special religious days. The word derived from the notion of a “Holy Day”, but has evolved (or more accurately devolved) to its current form. Valentine’s Day is the second biggest card-giving day of the year in the U.S.

It’s a bit sad that it has all turned into cards and candy and restaurants charging extra that day for the same old food. So much guilt and obligation about buying or forgetting to buy gifts.

Those ancient Romans loved festivals. They had a fertility festival in mid-February called Lupercalia. It honored Lupa, the wolf who saved Romulus and Remus, who then founded the city of Rome.

Lupercalia was a pagan festival and included sacrifices of goats and dogs. The festival was still very popular even when the Roman Empire was officially Christian. Of course, the Church wanted to replace it with something more acceptable. Something with a saint would be nice.

That early Christian priest, St. Valentine, who was martyred on February 14 in 269 A.D. actually has a good story. According to legend, due to a shortage of soldiers enlisting, Emperor Claudius II forbade single men to get married in order to increase his army. Valentine rebelled in his priestly way by performing secret wedding rituals. He was discovered, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. While awaiting his beheading in jail, he fell in love with the daughter of a guard who visited him. On the day he was executed, the priest left a note for the woman professing his love and he signed it “Love from your Valentine.”

But Chaucer often gets credit for making St. Valentine’s Day more of a secular and romantic day. When he wrote in the 14th-century his “The Parlement of Foules” he returned to that springtime idea that “on seynt Valentynes day” the goddess Nature watched all of the birds choose and seduce their mates. (“Foules being fowls or birds not “fools” – though these days the latter may be a better description for our behavior on this day.)

Chaucer wrote the poem for a patron poem to honor the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. There are no records of St. Valentine’s Day festivities in the English court until after Chaucer’s time. he nicely blended the nature and fertility associations, especially the rural English belief that birds choose their mates on February 14th, to the courtly love conventions of the day.

This put pressure on us (mostly males, as with the birds) to choose, seduce, including with gifts.

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is observed by women who present chocolate gifts (handmade ones are considered better) to men.

Honmei choco (“true feeling chocolate”) has also become “obligation chocolate” as women are expected to not only gift boyfriends, prospective boyfriends, and husbands, but bosses and almost any guy who has done them some favor.

The Honmei chocolate is higher-quality and more expensive than giri choco (“obligation or courtesy chocolate”) which is given to male coworkers and other men to whom the woman has no romantic attachment.

Don’t get mad ladies. There is also a reciprocal “holiday” called White Day which is celebrated one month later on March 14th when men buy candy and gifts for women. This is also observed in South Korea and Taiwan.

On White Day, males who received a honmei-choco on Valentine’s Day are expected – obligated – to return the favor by giving gifts, usually more expensive. Popular White Day gifts are cookies, jewelery, white chocolate, white lingerie and marshmallows.

Would you be surprised to find that White Day is a modern holiday first celebrated in 1978, or that it was started by the National Confectionery Industry Association?

But wait – there’s also Black Day a month after White Day (April 14) which appears to be more of a South Korean informal tradition for single people.  Not being a big candy eater, I like this day when singles get together and eat jajangmyeon (white noodles with black bean sauce). It’s a day for those who did not give or receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day.

So many  “Hallmark holidays” (a disparaging term that is not encouraged by the Hallmark card company) designed to sell things and make us feel guilty for being alone or not a loving as we should be. Next to New Year’s Eve, I would say that Valentine’s Day (now more often used without the Saint part) is a day that splits people between happiness and sadness.

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