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The Spirit of St. Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2010


Even as our economy struggles, Valentine’s Day is expected to generate some $15 billion in retail sales in the United States. The average U.S. consumer will likely spend $102.50 on Valentine’s Day gifts, meals, and entertainment, according to an annual Retail Federation survey. Married Americans will spend most of that amount on presents for their spouse, with the remainder going to gifts for their children, friends, co-workers, or pets.

Greeting cards are the most common Valentine’s Day purchase. Fifty-eight percent of American consumers plan to send at least one. According to the Greeting Card Association, 190 million Valentine’s Day cards will be given. That number does not include the hundreds of millions of cards schoolchildren will exchange.

Giving a Valentine’s Day card to a sweetheart has a long tradition. The first card was sent in 1415 from France’s Duke of Orléans to his wife when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London.

Originally handwritten notes, these cards gained popularity in the U.S. during the Revolutionary War. Mass production started in the early 1900’s. Since Hallmark produced their first Valentine’s Day cards in 1913, the market has blossomed.

The National Confectioners Association estimates that nearly one half of U.S. consumers will exchange Valentine’s Day candy, totaling a sweet billion dollars in sales. About 75 percent of that billion will be from sales of chocolate.

Chocolate has been associated with romance since Mexico’s Aztec Empire. The fifteenth-century Aztec emperor Moctezuma believed that eating chocolate made him more virile, a priority for a man with an extensive harem.

Valentine’s Day, the lovers’ holiday, traces its roots to a raucous annual Roman festival. In ancient Roman mythology, Juno was the goddess of love and marriage.  Her feast day was celebrated on February 15.  Each year the Romans conducted a three-day party called Lupercalia, which was, in essence, an early version of the “Dating Game.” Eligible young men and women, who were single but old enough to be married, gathered for the celebration, complete with plenty of food, wine, and the inevitable matchmaking. 

Couples brought together during Lupercalia were often struck by love at first sight.  The Romans believed that fluttering invisibly in their midst was the lesser god Cupid who fired his arrows indiscriminately.  They thought that an unsuspecting subject struck by Cupid’s arrow would fall in love with the next person who came into view. Interestingly, marriages often resulted from the matchmaking of Juno’s feast.

This pagan festival remained popular well into the fifth century A.D., years after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Christian church changed the festival to the feast day of St. Valentine.

During the third century A.D., the Roman Emperor Claudius II was responsible for the persecutions of Christians.  A young priest named Valentine visited those who were imprisoned, giving them comfort and consolation.  When Claudius sought to bolster his army, he forbade young men to marry. Valentine disobeyed the emperor’s ban by performing marriages in secret.

Because of this defiance of Claudius II, Valentine was beheaded on February 14, 270, during the Feast of Lupercalia. He was martyred on the altar of the goddess Juno.  Later canonized by the church, Valentine became known as Saint Valentine.

St. Valentine’s Day in our culture has become a time to express romantic love with chocolate, flowers, and heart-shaped cards. 

By all rights, February 14 ought also to be a time to express a much deeper love, love for all people, especially those who are suffering.

By all means, give your sweetheart a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers, or a carefully selected card. But in the true spirit of Saint Valentine, also consider making a contribution to the people of Haiti, to T.O.T.A.L. Ministries, to the Second Presbyterian Church Soup Kitchen, to St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic, to Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, to the Spartanburg Interfaith Hospitality Network, to Habitat for Humanity, to the Children’s Shelter, or to any one of the many charities that care for those in need.

This Valentine’s Day, let’s celebrate not only our love for those special people in our lives, but also our love for those God loves. That includes everyone.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2010

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