What does the birth of English as a literary language have to do with the February day when all the candy stores sell out? And what do they both have to do with premium cigars? To find out, we'll take a quick look at the history of Valentine's Day, its symbols and customs, and a few of the reasons why cigars might make the perfect Valentine's Day gift for your significant other.
Valentine's Day, of course, is named for St. Valentine. But which St. Valentine? The name was once common enough that many medieval Catholic saints had "St. Valentine's Days" at one point in the calendar year or another. In fact, until 1969, the Catholic Church recognized eleven separate Valentine's Days. (If you think the greeting-card and chocolate-box companies are cleaning up now ...)
But it is Valentine of Rome, martyred in the year 269 CE, and Valentine of Terni, the one-time Bishop of Interamna who was martyred under the Emperor Aurelian sometime in the third century, who are formally recognized by the Valentine's Day we now celebrate.
Over the course of the Middle Ages, these two saints were conflated in popular myths and biographies (which tended to take on various fanciful and folk elements over the years); and both of them came to be associated with exceptional kindness, though not with romantic love per se. One story that appears in the Golden Legend (a classic medieval source book of stories about saints) tells of Valentine miraculously healing the daughter of his own jailer.
That's a nice story, but it tells us nothing about how Valentine (both of them) got associated with romantic love. The origins of that tradition aren't clear, although it's probably worth mentioning that the period from February thirteenth through fifteenth was a fertility rite in ancient Roman times. Scholars are divided on whether this is merely a coincidence.
So the holiday--and its association of these two conflated-together Catholic saints with romantic love--may owe itself to Geoffrey Chaucer, the great English poet who always presents himself in his writing as a shy and retiring, scholarly nerd, ignorant of the ways of love. (It's a running gag in the work of an artist who, like Alfred Hitchcock, likes to make cameos in his own stories, a tradition that begins with his early "Book of the Duchess" and House of Fame, runs through the great ill-fated love story Troilus and Cressida, and all the way up to his masterwork, The Canterbury Tales, in which Chaucer, the author of the entire work, depicts himself within the book, telling a story that's so boring that his own characters force him to shut up!)
In The Parlement of Foules (we might say "Congress of Birds"), a comic dream-vision from the mid-period of his career (probably 1382), Chaucer writes that Valentine's Day (the feast of St. Valentine) is the day when all the birds come together to choose a mate. But, of course, there were already quite a few Feasts of St. Valentine (as stated above), and some scholars think he was talking about May 2, the day dedicated to someone named Valentine of Genoa.
In any case, soon after Chaucer--who used Middle English so divinely that he is today credited with making it a legitimate literary language, showing other English poets that they didn't have to write Latin to be taken seriously--we start finding references to a Parisian holiday celebrating love. References to such celebrations turn up as early as 1400 and, by the time Ophelia mentions them in Hamlet act IV, scene V (from one great poet to another), have become enshrined in European culture. The printing press, and the industriousness of a nineteenth-century American greeting-card manufacturer, helped enshrine it further still.
But, in any case, one of the problems often noted with recent Valentine's Day celebrations is the staleness of the gift-giving options. Hearts, flowers, candies, candy hearts ... it's all been done to death.
Why not try sending a gift that offers something different--and a delicious taste to boot?
Valentine's Day Cigars--it's a tradition waiting to happen.
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