Science + Technology

For Valentine's Day Celebrants, Heart Usually Isn't in The Right Place


If you still haven't posted a Valentine to your loved one, take heart.

According to a renowned UCLA medieval scholar at UCLA, you still have more than 75 shopping days 'til Valentine's Day.

"There's no big rush," said Henry Ansgar Kelly.

After thoroughly investigating the holiday's history, the director of UCLA's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies has found that the Day of Love was, um, conceived for celebration on May 3 — not Feb. 14.

"The confusion helps explain why, for most of the Northern Hemisphere, such Valentine's Day staples as fresh flowers and love birds just aren't consistent with this time of year," said Kelly.

But if Kelly's research is correct, even May 3 is arbitrary. Scouring more than 1,500 years of liturgical calendars and histories of saints, the professor of English in UCLA's College of Letters & Science has unearthed historical precedent for celebrating Valentine's Day on no less than 33 days of the year, including July 4.

Indeed, Kelly has not found a single month in which some group at some point has not honored someone — typically a Christian martyr — by the name of Valentine.

"We easily could do nothing but celebrate this holiday," Kelly said. "The greeting card manufacturers would probably be thrilled, but it would be hard to get anything else done."

Kelly's historical research has unearthed at least 50 Valentines — a name derived from "valor" in Latin — attached to various days throughout the year. They include a patron saint of epilepsy and another for curing animal ailments.

"None of them is very romantic," Kelly said.

It wasn't until the 14th century that Valentine's Day became associated with romance. Kelly credits English author Geoffrey Chaucer with making the love connection.

The year was 1381, and the author best known for the Canterbury Tales was employed in the court of Richard II. Chaucer's boss had managed to edge out two competitors — a French prince and a German nobleman — for the hand of Anne of Bohemia. On May 3, the king announced their engagement.

Chaucer marked the first anniversary of the occasion by writing "The Parliament of Fowls, " a poem that suggests parallels between human courtship and the mating rituals of birds.

"All the wonderful springtime imagery that we associate with the holiday can be found in this poem, " said Kelly.

As was customary in his day, Chaucer strove to associate the date with a saint's feast day. In his era, the day was already linked to a reputed discovery in the 4th century of a relic of Christ's crucifixion. But that association was "a little heavy" for a romantic occasion, Kelly said. So relying on contacts made eight years earlier on a diplomatic mission to Italy, Chaucer learned that May 3 was also the feast day of St. Valentine in Genoa. This Valentine lived in the 4th century and served as the city's first Catholic bishop, although Chaucer may not have known as much.

"He could project whatever he wanted onto the day," said the author of the 1986 book, "Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine."

Even in Chaucer's time, church calendars earmarked Feb. 14 for celebrating St. Valentine, but the poet may have thought that saint was the same as the Genoese one. In fact, Kelly has discovered at least a dozen other Valentines — some historical, others fictional — associated with Feb. 14.

Chaucer ended up writing three more Valentine's Day poems, all of them in keeping with an early May date.

The shift of the day of lovers to Feb. 14 occurred shortly before the poet's death in 1400, Kelly found. Once established as a day for romance, Feb. 14 began to attract imagery that had been associated with love since antiquity, including hearts and cupids.

The Catholic Church added to the confusion in 1969 by striking St. Valentine's Day from its liturgical calendar as part of well-intended multicultural reforms. Today, Feb. 14 is supposed to be celebrated as the feast days of a pair of apostles credited with translating Christian texts into Slavic.

So what's the historically correct romantic to do?

"I come from Iowa where February is so gloomy that it's known as Suicide Month, so I'd hate to get rid of Valentine's Day," Kelly said. "But I'd like to celebrate the holiday on the original date, and there's really a need for a celebration of love at that time. Mother's Day just doesn't do the trick."

So this year, Kelly and his wife of 32 years, Marea, will be celebrating romance on Feb. 14 and May 3.



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