The other day, my daughter asked me a question that stopped me cold in my tracks. “Why do we even celebrate Valentine’s Day, anyway?” The greed of Hallmark executives didn’t sound like the answer she was looking for, so I took to the interwebs to find my answer, and from the best I can tell, Valentine’s Day comes down to two people: St. Valentine and Cupid.
Let’s start with St. Valentine. Who is he? And what was so romantic about him that he got an entire love-celebrating holiday named after him?
It turns out that the Catholic Church recognizes three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of who were martyred. It’s unclear which one is the actual saint who is responsible for Valentine’s Day, but I ruled out those named Valentinus, if for no other reason than Valentinus’ Day sounds a little too phallic for me. That left St. Valentine, a Roman priest who lived during the third century. Rome’s emperor at the time was the heartless Claudius II. Convinced that single men made better soldiers than married ones, this frustrated and presumably undersexed man outlawed marriages for all his country’s soldiers.
But Saint Valentine realized how asinine this law was and defied Claudius’ mandate by performing clandestine marriages for young lovers. When Claudius discovered Valentine’s disobedience, he ordered that the priest be put to death. While Valentine was in the pokey, he fell in love with a beautiful maiden, a woman who some believe to have been the jailor’s daughter. She visited him frequently, and as legend has it, just before his execution, he wrote her a letter, which he signed, appropriately enough, “From your Valentine.” The rest, as they say, is history.
But, what about Cupid? How does he fit into the mix? The chubby, little arrow shooter was the mischievous son of Venus, the goddess of love. One day, Venus told Cupid to go punish a woman named Psyche, of whom she was quite jealous. When Cupid saw her, instead of punishing her, he fell in love with her, so much so that he decided to take her as his wife. However, since she was mortal, she was forbidden to ever look at Cupid. One day, she finally broke down and took a peek. Not a great call, as Cupid left her immediately, and everything in her life instantaneously vanished along with him.
Left completely alone, Psyche wandered around aimlessly trying to locate the man who broke her heart. One day she stumbled upon the temple of Venus, where Venus gave her a series of tasks, each one ever increasing in difficulty. Psyche passed them all effortlessly until the last one. She was given a box and told to take it to the underworld where she was to fill the box with the beauty of Pluto’s wife, Proserpine. Under no circumstances was Psyche to look inside that box.
But once again, curiosity got the best of her (possible gender flaw?), and inside the box she looked. And inside the box she found deadly slumber. However, Cupid, who still loved her, found Psyche and rid her body of the deadly sleep and returned it to the box. Cupid, Venus and everyone else were so taken by Psyche’s love for Cupid that they not only forgave her for her trespasses but also made her a Goddess. Armed with the gift of immortality, Psyche was then able to spend eternity with her true love, Cupid.
And that’s pretty much the rundown of the two most recognizable figures associated with Valentine’s Day. You know what I love about the two stories behind today’s holiday? One is mired in fact, and one is mired in mythology.
And for any love to last, I think you need a little of both, don’t you?
Speaking of love, there’s a little girl I love very much who will be delighted to know the stories behind the two most recognizable figures of Valentine’s Day. However you’re celebrating, I hope you and your family have a great day that’s filled with love!