Let Me Count the Ways: St. Valentine’s Day 101 (Yes, There’s a French Connection)


Remember the old shoeboxes for valentines in your grade school classroom? How you’d decorate your box with all sorts of frou-frous and hope the cute little boy (or the cute little girl) with the dimples would give you a valentine card, one of those mass-produced things? In school, at least, probaly no teacher ever told you why so much was made of Valentine’s Day. Right?

In fact, the American way of celebrating St. Valentine’s day really began in the nineteenth century, thanks to the Victorian custom of giving cards to friends and acquaintances.

Beyond that, there’s a French connection that seems plausible, too.

But first, a bit of history and speculation:

Hallmark cards aside, the fabled figure of St. Valentine may actually be a composite of three different Valentines, all honored on February 14. With no hard and fast explanation of how this saint came to be patron of greetings and lovers, speculation naturally surrounds this possibly apocryphal personage.

Romance and the season of spring intertwine regardless of the truth, signifying that various fertility rites probably gave birth to legend.

An old pagan idea describes birds (“lovebirds”) pairing up and mating on that date, a symbolic nod to the beginning of spring and new life. Other folkloric tales dating back to pagan times suggest that men drew the names of women in honor of the Roman goddess, Juno Februata on February 15. So sweet and chaste, it sounds. But pairing up likely occurred in some sort of fertility rite. And festivals naturally grew up around these beliefs and practices.

That’s the beginning.

st-valentine-iconNow what about those three Valentines? Those three guys named Valentine? Maybe there were just two. Who knows?

The most common story is one surrounding a martyred bishop at Terni, who in turn may have taken on the charism (essence/persona) of another Valentine associated with the martyrs Marius and Martha and their sons Audifax and Abachum (Feast day: January 19).

And yet another explanation suggests that St. Valentine’s association with love goes back to a fourth-century BC Roman fertility festival, Lupercalia, which took place in the mid February and lasted for two weeks. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius changed the date of the festival to the 14th, hoping to limit its pagan overtones. The festival honored the gods Lupercus and Faunus, as well as the wolf that suckled the twins Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.

Hard to understand how love comes into it, hmm?

Br. Laurence Lew, O.P.
St. Valentine's Relics in Rome (Photo credit: Br. Laurence Lew, O.P.)

Today, in Rome, a church dedicated to St. Valentine still stands on the Via Flaminian. Relics of the saint reside in three churches, further confusing seekers of the saint.

Although the specific date of St. Valentine’s martyrdom is unknown, some authors believe that St. Valentine ministered to the martyrs who suffered under Emperor Claudius II the Goth/the Cruel, including St. Marius. Valentine himself was martyred in 270 by being beaten with clubs and then beheaded. Why? Because Claudius forbade marriage to his soldiers, believing that single men would be better soldiers if they didn’t have families on their minds. So the emperor basically told everybody they were divorced if married and if engaged, he forbade marriages. And Valentine ignored the law and continued to perform marriage ceremonies for the soldiers and their wives.

Then comes the third version of the tale. While imprisoned, Valentine supposedly fell in love with a blind girl, daughter of his jailer. His great faith healed her of her blindness and just before his death, he wrote her a note, saying “From your Valentine.”

Sounds a little pat to me, like the tall tales a bunch of people sitting around a fire might embroider as the bottle passed one time too many.

Apparently, emperor Claudius didn’t quite grasp the idea that people could still worry about people they loved, even without the formal rites of marriage.

OK, now the love angle comes into better focus.

valentine-4Symbolism, like mythical stories, plays a particularly important role on this saint’s day, too. Red, the most obvious, suggests martyrdom and the Passion of Christ. But red also represents the idea that to love someone is akin to wanting to die for them. Hearts, angels, and flowers, too, bear symbolic meanings, namely tenderness, fidelity, the forming of bonds of love.

Medieval courtly love customs clinched the popular longing for a day such as St. Valentine’s day.  Chaucer may have set the ball rolling, but I have issues with that:

In a short history of St. Valentine’s day written by Borna Bruner, of Old Dominion University, the author says:

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 [ed. note: May] 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 “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.

Personally, I believe that the Roman Catholic Church connection sounds most plausible, because Chaucer knew of the saint and the traditions surrounding the feast day. Furthermore, people celebrated a St. Valentine’s saint’s day on May 3, which is probably what Chaucer meant in his poem.

So what about that French connection?

Once Charles I of Valois, Duke of Orleans, also a poet, imprisoned in the Tower of London, sent his wife a card on St. Valentine’s Day in 1415, the jig was up. This, the first for-real, tangible Valentine card, according to numerous sources, led to that shoebox in the grade school classroom, as you all know, or at least those of you do who went to American public schools … Cards, more than gifts, became de rigueur.

So what about food? Chocolate, cherries, red foods, sweet tidbits, candy hearts with goofy words on them …

According to the Feast Day Cookbook, by Katherine Burton and Helmet Ripperger, writing in 1951,

In Leicestershire, England, lozenge-shaped buns, made with caraway seeds and currants, called Valentine Buns [Ed. note: or Plum Shuttles], were formerly given to old people and children. The old-fashioned Valentine cookies, cut into heart shapes, sprinkled with red sugar, and decorated with red and white frosting, or even gilt, have gone out of style. They should be revived.

Sounds a bit like Hot Cross Buns in a way. Actually, they’re shaped more like weavers’ shuttles. Here’s a recipe and a picture for your enjoyment.

Coconut Cake
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Many cooks in the 1950s made Coconut Cake in the shape of a heart. This three-layered beauty wins all sorts of hearts!

Coconut Cake

(Adapted from a recipe by Ruth Cousineau in January 2008 Gourmet by Big City, Little Kitchen)

3 1/3 cups sifted cake flour
1 T. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 t. almond extract
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
7 large egg whites, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour 3 9-inch cake pans.

Make cake batter: in a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. Combine milk and extracts; set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar until lightened in color and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with milk mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Mix just until combined. Remove mixture to large bowl.

Thoroughly clean mixing bowl, and replace on mixer. Add egg whites to the bowl, beating on medium-high speed until they hold soft peaks. Add remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a thin stream, and beat until the whites hold stiff peaks. Add one-third of the whites to the batter and stir to combine; fold in remaining whites.

Divide batter evenly between the three pans. Bake for 20 minutes with two pans on upper rack, and one on lower; switch positions, and bake another 10 minutes, or until edges are golden-brown and centers spring back when touched. Cool cakes in pans 10 minutes; run a knife around edges to loosen, and invert onto cooling racks and leave until completely cool.

Meringue Frosting

3 large egg whites, room temperature
2 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 ½ T. light corn syrup
1/2 t. cream of tartar
1/8 t. salt
1 t. vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups shredded coconut (sweetened or not), reserving ½ cup

Set a saucepan of water on the stove to simmer. In a large bowl, beat together egg whites, sugar, corn syrup, water, cream of tartar, and salt using a handheld mixer. Set the bowl onto the pan of simmering water, and beat egg mixture at high speed until it holds stiff, glossy peaks, 5 to 7 minutes (go for a little longer than you think is necessary). Remove bowl from heat and transfer to the bowl of the standing mixer; add vanilla and beat on high another 6 to 8 minutes, until very thick. Fold in 2 cups shredded coconut.

Place one cake layer on a plate and frost top. Using toothpicks, secure the second layer to the first by pressing toothpicks vertically into cake in four separate places. Frost layer number two. Top with the third layer, repeat with toothpicks. Frost sides of cakes. Sprinkle top with reserved coconut.

© 2011, 2012 C. Bertelsen

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