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     Volume 8 Issue 57 | February 13, 2009 |

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A Roman Column

A Love Note

Neeman Sobhan

Tomorrow is February 14: Valentine's Day. A day supposedly dedicated to 'romantic love' and lovers. It is also a day named after a Roman saint, San Valentino.

And on the eve of St. Valentine's Day in Rome, I look around me and find this city, as always, refreshingly free of what the Italians call, 'smancerie' or cloying sentiments.

It is ironic that in the country, which gave the western world the most famous couple symbolising Romantic Love: Romeo e Giulietta (Romeo and Juliet) there is no glaring sign of Valentine's Day celebrations. And yet it was here that Valentine's Day originated.

St. Valentine's Day has its roots in classical Rome, and there is a mist of myth shrouding its origins. It is actually a double myth involving two men, both named Valentine and who could have been the same person.

The first St. Valentine was a Roman who was martyred for refusing to give up Christianity. He was executed on February 14, 269 A.D. and, apparently, before his execution he left a farewell note for the jailer's daughter, who had become his friend, signing it: "From Your Valentine".

According to others, Saint Valentine was a priest at a temple during the reign of Emperor Claudius, under whom Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. It was becoming difficult to get soldiers to join his military leagues, and Claudius believed that the reason was that Roman men did not want to leave their families or sweethearts. So, he forbade all marriages and engagements in Rome. The good priest Valentine while aiding the Christian martyrs also secretly married off couples, and for this he was sentenced to death. He too, suffered martyrdom on the 14th of February, about the year 270.

Whether the two Valentines were one person or different people, in 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honour a St. Valentine.

It is interesting to note that before this, in ancient Rome, February 14th was a holiday to honour the pagan goddess Juno, who was the patron deity of women and marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the Feast of Lupercalia. Roman girls and boys of the time used to lead segregated lives, but one custom of this festival involved name-drawing by the young people. The names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars, from which each young man would draw a girl's name. She would be paired off with him for the duration of the festival. Sometimes this lasted an entire year, and often, the pair would fall in love and later marry.

The pastors of the early Christian Church in Rome tried to do away with the pagan element in these feasts by substituting the names of saints for those of maidens. And as the Lupercalia began about the middle of February, the pastors chose Saint Valentine's Day for the celebration of this new feast. Gradually, St. Valentine became the patron saint of lovers; and elsewhere in the world, February 14 became the date for exchanging love messages and choosing ones 'valentine'.

San Valentino

But strangely, in Italy, St. Valentine's birth country and a land considered to be the destination of romance, February 14 or Valentine's day is regarded as a foreign celebration, imported from the U.S. just like Halloween and Mother's day. Under global or American influence, the Italians make a nod to this day by calling it Il Giorno della Festa degli Innamorati, or the Festival of Those in Love, and is celebrated by couples or lovers, who might go to dinner at a pizzeria or ristorante and perhaps give each other a box of the famous Perugina chocolates called Baci or Kisses, small, chocolate-covered hazelnuts wrapped with a slip of paper of a romantic poetic quote in four languages.

In recent years some commercialism of the American type has crept in, but there is none of the mass-scale inducements for sending Valentine's cards or buying of gifts like, lingerie, perfume, diamonds, Godiva chocolates, roses, toys and balloons. And no guilt accrues to a lover forgetting this day.

Thus, in Italy, Valentine's Day is only an optional day for expressing one’s romantic feelings, since every other day of the year is equally available to say 'ti amo' or show one’s love!


Recently, many countries outside the commercially frenzied Western world are beginning to celebrate Valentine's Day. In a world where there are few things to celebrate, I would say, that's fine. I have nothing against celebrations generally and absolutely nothing against love in any form. However, my discomfort with public anniversaries for private emotions is mainly due to the commercial sponsoring of these spurious, artificial celebrations. I know, my objections sound just as trite as the things I object to: those commercially promoted, unimaginative and unoriginal props said to represent 'love' and consisting of buying heart shaped things like cards, balloons, candy; exchanging soft , cuddly toy animals and red roses; going for candle-lit dinners and wearing red clothes.

As I was saying, I am not against celebrating love. What bothers me is that the commercial world should be allowed to take this free-flowing emotion and reduce it into a cliché, a ready-made, pre-packaged, price-tagged object.

Love comes into each person's life as a fresh and powerful force, a purifying and electrifying event, a tidal wave of mind-boggling, life-changing passions and emotions. It is the fountainhead of creativity in us, making poets, artists, dancers, writers, dreamers, saints and heroes out of the most ordinary person it touches. To trap the expression of this emotion and channel it only into predictable (and profitable) ways controlled by the western, commercial world is to diminish this beautiful feeling.

Why candle-lit dinners? Why cards? Why balloons? Why chocolates and candies? Why red? Why anything bought from the shops at all? And why only February 14?

Why can't we find other culturally creative ways to show love and friendship, and export it to the world? The Indians have a beautiful concept of girls tying the raakhi and creating lifelong brothers. Why can't we too, recreate social rituals that are rooted in our own cultural experience, and that instill love and respect not only between the sexes but within existing relationships among family members; between neighbours, students and teachers; employers and employees, servants and masters?

A culture evolves as we consciously and lovingly apply our creativity and freshness of vision to its nurturing. As we love it and mould it, it loves us back and gives us our identity, our roots, our bearings; it helps us reinvent ourselves as authentic and unique people.

There is nothing wrong with accepting things from outside if they add beauty, conviction and meaning to our lives, or fill some gap that our own culture cannot fulfill; but if we replace cultural aspects and attitudes that have functioned well for generations only to flirt with novelty or fashion for its own sake, we damage ourselves. We should not be afraid of change if it solves a problem and makes our lives better, or if a solution within our own world proved inadequate.

We cannot look towards foreign cultures to provide us with answers to larger questions that hinge on our identity. How we dress, what we eat, how we speak, how we show our feelings, express our love, pray… all these must be tuned to our sense of ourselves as a people with a rich cultural and spiritual history behind us.


But even as we talk, yet another February 14 or Bhalobasha Dibosh is upon us. No, I am not really against dedicating a day to Love, romantic or any other kind. In fact, why just a day? I would love all of us to dedicate a week, a month, a year, a whole life-time to love. If I had the power to I would decree we devote everyday of our lives to love; or at the very least, spend a few hours every day on the love of our fellow human beings! What better creed for humankind?

So from the land of the other Valentino--- not the patron saint of handbags and shoes but the one who didn't know he would become the patron saint of Hallmark cards, I send all my readers my sincerest affections on this day, and salute every form of Love there is that makes us vulnerable, fallible and human.

May Love bless us all!

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