Why Do We Celebrate Valentine's Day, Anyway?

For all of you out there who think Valentine’s Day is a terrible holiday, the women of ancient Rome would be inclined to agree with you. Back then, every year from Feb. 13 to the 15, the men of Rome would skin animals and use their hide to whip the women of their town all in the name of love and matrimony. How romantic is that?!

People celebrating a Roman Festival, dressing up like dogs and sheep. Wikimedia Commons For me, Valentine’s Day is the best holiday of them all. I will take any excuse to tell the people I love that I love them, and Valentine’s Day is a whole day dedicated to doing just that. But this year, as I got ready to celebrate, I realized I know virtually nothing about the origin of the holiday. And what I found shocked me.

Valentine’s Day is named after, of course, St. Valentine, who actually was a few different people. Valentine was the John of the Roman Empire, and there ended up being several people named Valentine executed on Feb. 14 throughout Roman History. We know very little about all the different Valentines out there, but a few of them we know did great things. The Catholic Church thus deemed Feb. 14 a day to celebrate all the great Valentines, St. Valentine’s Day. Later this holiday combined with the woman-beating holiday for fertility, and we get a holiday that is about St. Valentine and matrimony.

Later writers like Shakespeare would romanticize the holiday and turn it into more of the lovefest we know today, incorporating cards and gifts. But it’s still haunting to me that such a lovely holiday has such a dark origin, that set a precedent for Valentine’s Days to come.

In the 1300s, Jews were burned to death on Feb. 14 as part of the Black Death persecutions. It was one of the worst pogroms in premodern history. It is known as the Strasbourg Massacre because on Valentine’s Day, the Jewish community of Strasbourg was destroyed.

Pogrom de Strasbourg 1349 Wikimedia Commons Gang violence in Chicago in the 1920s reached a deadly climax with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Seven men from a gang were shot to death in a garage on Feb. 14, 1929, by a rival gang dressed up as police officers. Fun fact, this incident is marked as the beginning of Al Capone’s demise.

In more recent years, Feb. 14 has also become the date of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. An expelled student came to school with a gun killing 17 students and wounding 17 others.

But even with all this tragedy happening on one day consistently throughout history, we still choose to take it as a day to love each other. And I think that’s so important. We have to always choose love. It can seem so easy to give in sometimes but hate and anger get us nowhere. The juxtaposition of violence and hate on a holiday that is supposed to be about honoring the people we love really shows we are able to time, and time again, turn acts of violence into opportunities to spread kindness, create change and build community. Now, Valentine’s Day gives us a great opportunity to not only tell our loved ones how we feel but also reflect on how we can put love out into the world even when things can seem so dark.

So however you feel about Valentine’s Day, whether you buy flowers for your partner or choose to participate in SAD (Singles Awareness Day), remember that Valentine’s Day is what you make of it. Use it as a day to remember the bad Valentine’s Days and put a little more love out into the world.

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