The exact origin of Valentine’s Day is debatable, but its ties to pre-Christian practices are nearly certain. The Romans paid attention to (and were inspired by) the natural world, and this was the time when birds were believed to mate in ancient Italy. That made it the perfect time for a fertility festival!
Sitting in Frankfurt, looking out at the balcony, I could see where they got this idea. Spring comes earlier to this part of Europe than it does to the midwestern United States. Here in Germany, Nature’s been particularly frisky outside our window.
Whether Februa or Lupercalia, the Romans celebrated the 13th through the 15th of February with festivals of purification, health, and fertility. With the creation of St. Valentine’s Day in the 5th century, the Church attempted to co-opt several of the Pagan fertility rituals, creating milder Christian versions. They evolved over time into the Valentine’s Day of today, with its faint echoes of the ancient past.
Ever since I was a girl, I loved this holiday. My birthday fell 10 days before Valentine’s Day. It is considered my Name’s Day, because Valya is derived from Valentina. I daydreamed about the boys declaring their love for me with chocolate hearts and paper promises.
It didn’t happen.
I was neither “popular” nor “cool” in grammar school. I was smart. The boys in my honors classes were my friends, that’s it. Just friends. At best, I played at counselor and confidante…even as I dreamed about being noticed.
So my early Valentine’s Days were bittersweet. I never received cards or tokens, but I dreamed of the day when that would change. Fueled by the fiction I devoured in my spare time, I had an active imagination and a definite romantic streak.
In high school, I started to break out of my shell and shifted away from being just a “smart” girl. But I attended Resurrection High School in Chicago, an all-girl Catholic high school, so there were no boys to notice me in classes or clubs. I had a few boyfriends, but none that were serious and none around Valentine’s Day.
The year I turned sweet sixteen, I was particularly emotional as Valentine’s Day approached. My parents heard my tearful stories about romantic dates and gestures planned for my girlfriends by their thoughtful boyfriends. I was envious, and I was sad.
My mother and father gave me a heart-shaped box of Fanny Mae chocolates that Valentines Day. I got angry with them, certain that their gesture would somehow cement my permanent spinsterhood. I didn’t realized how lucky I was that they noticed my sadness and knew me well enough to give me a little gift.
Almost twenty years later, I still have that heart-shaped box among my treasures. I had forgotten it until I was going through my keepsakes while organizing my office. As soon as I saw it, I remembered the day my parents gave it to me. I remembered how bittersweet each chocolate piece was.
That heart characterizes this day for me. It’s a day to tell the people we care about that they are important to us.
It’s a day to look around and see what our loved ones really need: a hug, a card, a word of encouragement, a reminder. It’s a day to pay attention and respond accordingly.
Regardless of your religious background and beliefs, on this day, my Valentine’s wish for you is that someone is paying attention and gives you exactly what you need.