No really, this most outwardly heteronormative of holidays is the perfect time to celebrate forms of love that are not approved by conservatives who want to define love and marriage in their own restrictive and exclusive way.

A bit of history:

So, where do the romance, hearts, and chocolate come in? First of all, because in Medieval Europe, people noticed birds started mating around the saint's day. In fact, Geoffery Chaucer has been credited with pretty much inventing the origins of Valentine's day as we know it by associating it with courtly love in his dream poem, "The Parliament of Fowls". This poem describes a dream of a parliament observed by many pagan gods assocated with love and many famous lovers from history and legend, in which Nature awards birds their proper mates:

"For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,

Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,

Of every kinde, that men thynke may;

And that so huge a noyse gan they make,

That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake

So ful was, that unnethe was ther space

For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.(ll. 309-315)

There is a modern translation here. It's also probably worth noting that there is a good bit of wordplay here, punning "fowl" and "fool", and that the three noble eagles who compete to seduce the same mate all end up alone. It's also probably worth noting that as Chaucer sets things up, the idea of a single definitive narrative or authoritative order is constantly disrupted by competing voices. (If any of our resident Medievalists want to go into this a bit further, that would be kind of awesome.)

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Anyhow, this linking of Valentine's day and Courtly Love slowly developed into lovers expressing their appreciation for each other by the 18th century . . . which eventually evolved into chocolates and greeting cards.

But . . . let's go further back.

The Catholic Saint's day shares a date with the ancient Roman festival celebrated around the ides of February, Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a pastoral festival, also strongly linked to the foundation of Rome. Each year, the sacred rites of Lupercalia involved the Luperci (male priests) assisted by the Vestal Virgins, sacrificing goats and a dog in the Lupercal, the cave on the Palatine hill which was believed to be where Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf. (Note: dogs and goats were associated with strong sexual instincts.)

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But probably the most famous aspect of Lupercalia festivities? Young men (the Luperci) running half-naked through the street whipping passersby with strips of goat leather.

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For purification and fertility, of course.


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That is some Folsom Street festivity right there.

So Back to Saint Valentine. Or Saint Valentinus. Or Saint Valentinus plural. See, there's more than one Christian Martyr named Valentine or Valentinus sainted by the Catholic Church. It was a popular name. Although, some of the multiple accounts may be referring to one person. In general, though people are likely referring to a priest named Valentinus who was caught aiding members of that weird Hebrew cult that Caeser Claudius II had outlawed (which was of course illegal), and performing marriages for Christian couples (which was naturally also illegal), or performing marriages for soldiers who were forbidden to marry.When he was imprisoned, Claudius took a liking to him. But then he tried to convert Claudius, so he was executed.

Yup. As the story goes, this man was beaten, stoned, and then beheaded (because he was apparently one tough guy and beating and stoning just wouldn't kill him) for performing marriages that the dominant religion and legal system of the time did not consider legal. (And for being bloody-minded stubborn enough to try to convert the Caesar himself to his weird cult that only acknowledged one god, of course.)

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The character known as Saint Valentine isn't just the patron saint of lovers, he's the patron saint of bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, plague, travellers, and young people also.

So, where am I going with this? As we are bombarded with ideas of Love, Romance, and what it means to be a good couple this Valentines day, with images of heterosexual romance that have been converted into $$$$$$ for Hallmark, chocolate makers, and restaurants, let's remember that there are multiple competing voices. Multiple narratives. Many colors we can give this holiday. The loudest voices may well be the voices of "foules". And among the narratives of Valentine's Day, we should include celebrating the guy who, in the face of persecution and death, celebrated the marriages of people whose union was not approved by the authorities or the culture in power. After all, that's the guy this holiday was named after. If that guy were alive today he'd totally be campaigning for marriage equality.