Has there ever been a holiday more misnamed than Valentine’s Day? That is not a legitimate question, of course. It is a Rhetorical Question. I asked it only for dramatic effect and expect you, dear readers, to reply with an emphatic “NO!”
Actually, yes, Saint Valentine was a Roman priest martyred on February 14, 270 AD. And yes, he might have defied the Roman emperor by secretly marrying couples to spare the husbands from dying in Roman foreign wars. But, NO, his name had absolutely no connection with romantic love until 1,112 years later in 1382, during the Middle Ages, when King Richard II of England married Anne of Bohemia.
And it was the father of English literature — Geoffrey Chaucer — who invented the holiday as we know it today when he wrote a delightful poem in honor of that royal marriage. He called it The Parliament of Fowls, and it was a light-hearted dream vision of birds debating the nature of true love. In the medieval period, it was assumed that birds called for their future mates in mid-February, since it was the first time birdsong was heard in England once the worst of winter had passed. In the poem, Chaucer was therefore the first to link this romantic impulse specifically to Saint Valentine's Day itself on February 14. Voila — future florists and high-end chocolatiers have been deeply indebted to Chaucer ever since.
As a professor of English literature, I am indignant that Chaucer’s name is never mentioned on February 14. Not only did he invent the initial connection between the mid-winter date and romance, but his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, overflows with wondrous stories of young lovers, many sentimental and some hilariously bawdy. Yet on this holiday, here we are honoring instead a martyred old Roman celibate who couldn’t have possibly enjoyed being gifted tiny pastel heart-shaped sugar candies with “LOVER BOY” or “QT PIE” neatly stenciled on them.
OK, I get it — it would take some adjusting if we suddenly gazed gooey-eyed at our beloved and murmured, “Will you be my Chaucer?”. But since his name is derived from the French (meaning “Shoemaker”), we could properly pronounce “Chaucer” and say “Will you be my ‘Shuh-SOOR’?”— which rhymes with “Masseur,” thus indicating that we were eager for a real hands-on experience on this day of love.
In any case, I have been asked to speak to groups on Valentine’s Day many times, and rather than trying to give this complex explanation of the day’s true origin, I always took the easy way out and simply delivered a special Romeo and Juliet program. It usually went well, except for the Valentine’s Day when I addressed a group of cardiologists in Los Angeles. It was during a hospital luncheon in the doctors’ private dining area. There was a strict 25-minute limit on my lecture time since the audience would then be returning to their rounds.
Big Trouble arrived that day in a white coat and stethoscope — the unusually tall physician who introduced me. Let’s call him Dr. Clueless. He couldn’t resist, during his introduction, “taking a minute” to ponder why the heart made the perfect organ to symbolize love. He not only took a minute — but NINE more. As he droned on and on, I was frantically discarding in my agitated mind huge chunks of my talk — all containing Pure Gold, I modestly tell you. He f-i-n-a-l-l-y concluded by rhetorically asking if it weren't obvious that the heart was the seat of love and everything else worthwhile on this planet, since the letters of HEART made an anagram for EARTH.
I approached the podium with a plastered smile on my mouth which I hoped would hide the intense gritting of my teeth going on directly inside it. Ever gracious, I opened by applauding how clever Dr. Clueless was for discovering the anagram EARTH within HEART.
But what I really wanted to do — in the few paltry minutes he had left me — was to continue his planetary body-parts connection by asking: “Do you have any equally dumb explanation for why MARS is an anagram for ARMS, and oh, by the way, could you also please enlighten us about Uranus?”
Yes, dear readers, those were indeed Rhetorical Questions!