Valentine’s Day gained traction in medieval times as a celebration of love. Before the 14th century, it was a feast day in honour of St. Valentine. Valentine was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II’s edict that forbade young men to marry – until he was caught, condemned and executed.
As the legend goes, on the day of his execution he sent his love – the daughter of one of the judges who had condemned him – a note and signed it “From your Valentine.” The salutation, as we know, has become standard and frequently expresses the romantic attachment between two people.
Today’s culture emphasizes the romantic aspect of the day, probably because romance translates into dollars. Last year, Canadians spent an average of $74 on Valentine’s Day gifts.
Spending aside, the rituals of Valentine’s Day, from candlelight dinners in tony restaurants to cupcakes with pink icing and cinnamon hearts shared in an elementary school classroom, express many forms of love.
The English language is not very inventive when it comes to describing love. We use the same word to describe how we feel about all sorts of things. We might love to ski, our morning coffee, the movie we watched last night or a special outfit. We love our pets, we love our spouse, children, parents and friends.
The ancient Greeks were more sophisticated when it came to describing emotional attachment. They spoke about six forms of love.
- Eros expressed passion or intense desire. It was the fire within and, like a fire, eros could get out of control and become destructive.
- The concept of philia included friendship, appreciation of others, as well as loyalty to family, community and even the workplace.
- Storge referred to the love between children and parents. Unlike eros and philia, which depended on an individual’s personal qualities, storge arose from feelings of dependency.
- Ludus could be the affection between young children, puppy love or flirtatiousness. Ludus relationships were playful, casual and uncomplicated.
- Agape referred to the love of God for man and of man for God. Agape was selfless and encompassed all humanity.
- Pragma described the mature love found in successful marriages. Where eros expressed the feeling of falling madly in love, pragma reflected the will and commitment required to maintain a loving relationship for the long haul.
- Philautia described love of self. Like eros, philautia could be good, as in having healthy self-esteem and treating one’s self with kindness, or bad, as in being narcissistic.
Valentine’s Day gives us a chance to celebrate the critical human experience of loving and being loved across the spectrum of these various emotional attachments.
The simple acts of loving kindness that we enact on Valentine’s Day can move passion towards a mature and life-giving relationship, express friendship, enhance family bonds, communicate our concern for others, and nurture a sense of self-worth.
In an otherwise ho-hum, often dreary month, Valentine’s Day rituals brighten the landscape of the heart.
My appreciation of Valentine’s Day has remained undiminished over the years. While never a big spender on the day, I like to mark it in some way. It’s a playful, light-hearted way to celebrate something of great importance – the beauty of relationship and the uniqueness of the individual.
Valentine’s Day celebrates our ability to love. While we may not have the vocabulary of the ancient Greeks to distinguish between and define the various forms of love, our Valentine’s Day rituals express them all – passion, friendship, self-giving, commitment and a healthy love of self.
Our rituals, large or small, are visible signs of the regard in which we hold one another. Regardless of spending, love makes everyone feel special.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.
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