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Valentine’s Day is the annual holiday honoring lovers. It is celebrated on February 14 by the custom of sending greeting cards or gifts to express affection. The cards, known as valentines, are often designed with hearts to symbolize love. Every February, across the country, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? The history of Valentine’s Day — and its patron saint — is shrouded in mystery.
The history of Valentine’s Day is obscure, and further clouded by various fanciful legends. St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. Its roots are obscured by mystery and there are varying opinions about it. Its origins have become themes of many legends.
According to legend, the holiday has its roots in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalis/Lupercalia, a fertility celebration commemorated annually on February 15. As Christianity came to dominance in Europe, pagan holidays such as Lupercalia were frequently renamed for early Christian martyrs. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day circa 496, declaring February 14 to be the feast day of the Roman martyr Saint Valentine, who lived in the 3rd century.
Which St. Valentine this early pope intended to honor remains a mystery. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were at least three early Christian saints by that name. One was a priest in Rome, another a bishop in Terni, and of a third St. Valentine almost nothing is known except that he met his end in Africa. Rather astonishingly, all three Valentines were said to have been martyred on Feb. 14.
Most scholars believe that the St. Valentine of the holiday was a priest who attracted the disfavor of Roman emperor Claudius II around 270. The history of St. Valentine’s Day has two legends attached to it – the Protestant and the Catholic legend. According to both legends, Valentine was a bishop who held secret marriage ceremonies of soldiers in opposition to Claudius II who had prohibited marriage for young men and was executed by the latter. Although many scholars agree that Lupercalia was moved from Feb. 15th to the 14th and was Christianized by associating it with this St. Valentine character, it is still unclear just who the historical St. Valentine was. One school of thought believes that he was a Roman martyred for refusing to give up his Christian faith. According to church tradition St. Valentine was a priest/bishop of Rome in about the year 270 A.D.
At that time the Roman Emperor Claudius-II who had issued an edict forbidding marriage. This was around when the heyday of Roman empire had almost come to an end. Lack of quality administrators led to frequent civil strife. Learning declined, taxation increased, and trade slumped to a low, precarious level. And the Gauls, Slavs, Huns, Turks and Mongolians from Northern Europe and Asian increased their pressure on the empire’s boundaries. The empire was grown too large to be shielded from external aggression and internal chaos with existing forces. Thus more of capable men were required to be recruited as soldiers and officers. When Claudius became the emperor, he felt that married men were more emotionally attached to their families, and thus, will not make good soldiers. He believed it made the men weak. So to assure quality soldiers, he banned marriage.
Valentine, realized the injustice of the decree. Seeing the trauma of young lovers, he met them in a secret place, and joined them in the sacrament of matrimony. He defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. But Claudius soon learned of this "friend of lovers," and had him arrested.
While Valentine was in prison awaiting his fate, he came in contact with his jailor, Asterius. The jailor had a blind daughter. Asterius requested him to heal his daughter. The Catholic legend has it that through the vehicle of his strong faith he miraculously restored the sight of Asterius’ daughter, a phenomenon refuted by the Protestant version which agrees otherwise with the Catholic one. Just before his execution, he asked for a pen and paper from his jailor, and signed a farewell message to her "From Your Valentine," a phrase that lived ever after. Another legend has it that Valentine, imprisoned by Claudius, fell in love with the daughter of his jailer. However, this legend is not given much importance by historians. Probably the most plausible story surrounding St. Valentine is one not focused on Eros (passionate love) but on agape (Christian love): he was martyred for refusing to renounce his religion.
The emperor, impressed with the young priest’s dignity and conviction, attempted to convert him to the Roman gods, to save him from certain execution. Valentine refused to recognize Roman Gods and even attempted to convert the emperor, knowing the consequences fully. What happened was what was to happen. All attempts to convert the emperor failed.
On February 14, 270 AD, Valentine was executed.
Valentine thus become a Patron Saint, and spiritual overseer of an annual festival. The festival involved young Romans offering women they admired, and wished to court, handwritten greetings of affection on February 14. The greeting cards acquired St.Valentine’s name.
It was not until the 14th century that this Christian feast day became definitively associated with love. According to UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, author of Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, it was Chaucer who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance.
In 1381, Chaucer composed a poem in honor of the engagement between England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. As was the poetic tradition, Chaucer associated the occasion with a feast day. In medieval France and England it was believed that birds mated on February 14, and the image of birds as the symbol of lovers began to appear in poems dedicated to the day. In Chaucer’s "The Parliament of Fowls," the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and St. Valentine’s Day are linked:
"For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate."
By the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France. Despite attempts by the Christian church to sanctify the holiday, the association of Valentine’s Day with romance and courtship continued through the Middle Ages. Over the centuries, the holiday evolved, and by the 18th century, gift-giving and exchanging hand-made cards on Valentine’s Day had become common in England. Hand-made valentine cards made of lace, ribbons, and featuring cupids and hearts eventually spread to the American colonies. The first commercial Valentine’s Day greeting cards produced in the U.S. were created in the 1840s by Esther A. Howlanda Mount Holyoke, a graduate and native of Worcester, Mass. Howland, known as the Mother of the Valentine, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as "scrap". The tradition of Valentine’s cards did not become widespread in the United States, however, until Howland began producing them in large scale. Today, of course, the holiday has become a booming commercial success. According to the Greeting Card Association, 25% of all cards sent each year are valentines.The Valentine’s Day card spread with Christianity, and is now celebrated all over the world. One of the earliest card was sent in 1415 AD by Charles, duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. The card is now preserved in the British Museum.
Whoever Valentine was, we know he was an actual person because archaeologists have recently unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to a Saint Valentine.
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