Sunday, February 14, 2010

Holiday of Obligation

When my thoughts wander back, as on such a day they ought, to the grand old days in the old country where Brigitte and I both come from, and I look for cherished memories of St. Valentine’s day as we used to celebrate it, I discover—nothing at all. And that’s because Valentine’s day is a holiday of obligation—but of the Church of Commerce, not of the Church of Rome. But the Church of Rome, at least in the institutional persona of the Catholic Encyclopedia, informs me (here) that early lists of martyrs cite at least three Valentines. One was a martyred priest, another a martyred bishop; about the third, who died with others somewhere in Africa, we know nothing at all. The deaths of celibate men by violence seem a poor basis for such a celebration. For this reason the editors go on to discover how this holiday actually arose. I quote:

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:

     For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
     Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice.
Now Brigitte was born into a German family but in what is now part of Poland, and after World War II continued to live in Germany—and as I was born in Hungary and in my youth also moved to Germany—we did not encounter this custom. But in the United States, where the St. Valentines, fused into a single image, are unavoidable, our celebration has indeed taken the form of exchanges in writing. That practice, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes with a certain wryness of phrasing, “has of late years fallen into desuetude.”

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