Without Valentine’s Day, February would be… well, January. Such an insight could only come from a comedian like Jim Gaffigan and yet, he might well have a point. In much of the western world, February and Valentine’s Day are synonymous. Growing up in Ireland, I used to live in dread that I would be the only one in my class not to receive a Valentine’s card. The one and only time I was ever thrown out of class was on St Valentine’s Day when I was caught red-handed reading a big, red, heart-shaped card. That one blemish on an otherwise pristine school career still haunts me.
The real St Valentine
St Valentine is one of the oldest, most successful, brand names in history. I wonder if he’s turning in his grave at how commercialized his feast day has become? I only discovered recently that in the Catholic Church’s martyrology (what you read when you’re stuck for a book, eh?), there are no fewer than three St Valentines listed under the date of February 14. One was a priest in Rome, and another a bishop in central Italy, both of whom lived in the third century. Of the third, not much is known other than he lived and died in Africa. Of the three, one the two Italians are most likely to be the St Valentine who has lent his name to an industry that generates millions in hard cash each year.
The pick of the pair
Some sources say February 14 is the anniversary of the Roman’s death in 269 AD. Jailed for refusing to give up Christianity, he left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter with whom he had fallen in love, signing it from your Valentine. That explains the cards. Other sources say it’s the anniversary of the bishop’s death. He was jailed for defying the emperor Claudius the Cruel, who had outlawed marriage – married soldiers were apparently reluctant to leave their wives and go to war. Valentine defied his ruling and married couples in secret. For this he lost his head; is this linked to how we often lose our head (reason) when in love.
Known as Bálint Nap in Hungary, the commercial side of St Valentine’s Day is relatively recent here (1989). Local folklore still suggests that it is a good day to have geese, ducks, and hens sit on their eggs and hatch. Bird enthusiasts will tell you that half-way through February (a normal February, that is) birds begin to pair off and choose their mates. In his Parliament of Foules Chaucer talks about: For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate. In the village of Szil in Hungary, people believe that St Valentine is the patron saint of sparrows as this is when sparrows begin to mate. Perhaps this is why the date is so auspicious for lovers – the most favorable day in the year for them to declare their love by writing letters and sending gifts. (I wonder if anywhere in Budapest delivers heart-shaped langós complete with tejföl, sajt, és hagyma?)
Far from conventional
For most of my adult life, I have had the (mis)fortune to date men who have eschewed the whole idea of St Valentine’s Day. My memorable moments are therefore few and far between. My most unusual Valentine’s Day present was from a very married man. He called me late on the evening of February 13 to say that he had a Valentine’s present for me and asked if he could drive round to deliver it. I was already in bed and hoped it might wait until the next day – at work. But no, it couldn’t.
Curiosity will always get the better of me and amid assurances that his wife knew what he was doing and was fine with it, I agreed. I’m a trusting soul. I was to be dressed and ready and waiting outside my cabin in 10 minutes. It was winter. It was Alaska. It was snowing and it was cold. So I donned my parka and my boots and went outside just as he pulled up in his pick-up truck. He’d been hunting. The tailgate was down and I could see the huge, inert form of a dead buffalo lying in the bed. My friend reached inside the carcass and pulled out my present – the buffalo’s heart.
The next day, as girlfriends of mine around the world found vases for flowers, ate their chocolates, read their cards, examined their new jewelry, and looked forward to romantic dinners for two, I was stuffing and cooking a massive buffalo heart for six technicians at the Valdez Marine Terminal – all male, all married. That was February 14, 1999. The heart has been eaten but the story lives on.
First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2012