It’s almost St Valentine’s Day, February 14th, hereinafter called “the day.” This year the day somewhat coincidently comes one day after the Super Bowl. Don’t allow that extravaganza to make you forget your sweetheart and cherished ones.
The coincidence is because the “big game” is occurring about a week later this year than most others in recent history. That’s because the NFL, like other professional leagues – in their never-ending quest for money – has decided to add a 17th game to each team’s schedule. [Don’t even get me started on the NBA and their addiction to China’s money, see here, here, here, and many others.].
The day is often annotated with flowers, candies, dates, proposals, photos, notes and cards with images of Cupid, the cards and notes often signed off with XOXO.
Less often are references to the massacre of that day and name, administered in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in north Chicago, in 1929. Lore has it that the gore can be attributed – directly or indirectly – to Prohibition.
Who was St Valentine? Historians and theologians disagree on just how and why to connect said saint to this romantic date, mostly because there were three Saint Valentines – all three were martyrs, executed by the Roman emperor.
The most likely story is that of a Saint Valentinus (ca 225-270 CE). He was a priest in what would be modern day Italy. He was sympathetic to the romantic inclinations of young men who were serving in the Roman military. The Emperor, Claudius II, believed that single men made better warriors. As Valentinus knew that love knows no bounds, he married the smitten men to their beloved sweethearts clandestinely. He might have believed that this helped keep them more chaste when far away from home. His secret was eventually discovered; he was beaten, tortured and beheaded.
The day? Whether legend or truth, or perhaps related to one of the other “Valentines”, the day of Cupid and putting love and loyalty on the calendar this particular day, is that it is presumably the date of his execution. At least in the west; in eastern Christianity it falls on July 6th.
Or, the day could be related to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, which by Christian times, had evolved into something of a pre-spring fertility festival. Lupercalia was celebrated around the Ides of Februarius, which was regarded as the last month of the year for ceremonial purposes. Should we mention that fertility and “love” are related? Early Christians were pretty good at appropriating the dates of existing rituals to help with conversions and make proselytes feel more “at home.”
Linguists might notice the “Lup” in Lupercalia and wonder if there is a wolf involved.
Well, there is a wolf involved. Historically, going back a few centuries BCE, the party festivities were to honor Lupa, the she-wolf who nursed and nurtured Romulus and Remus – the mythical founders of Rome.
[By the way, I’m pretty sure that Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with the urban slang meaning for she-wolf, which is “promiscuous woman”, or worse: “prostitute.”]
And Cupid? The cute chubby fellow who adorns so many cards? He’s the Roman god of passionate love and physical attraction. He’s that cherubic and precocious imp who shoots arrows that, upon hitting their human target, provoke physical and emotional feelings: in short, uncontrollable desire. In one mythologic tale he accidently shoots himself, and thus he himself must suffer the ordeal of love. How apropos.
Cupid, like many Roman Gods, was “stolen” from the Greeks, whose name for the corresponding god was “Eros”. Eros to Greeks meant the same as what Cupid was the god of: passionate physical love. Romans’ Latin even stole the very word Eros: from which we get the English words erotic, eroticism, erogenous and the like. Etymologically, eros is both the Latin and Greek word for physical, passionate, sexual love.
One might wonder why Cupid, a god who can rule over one of mankind’s strongest emotions, is most often depicted as a winged, tubby little pre-pubescent lad. Why not a strong muscular figure? This transition seems to have pre-dated Christianity and even the Roman adoption of Eros as Cupid.
Wings? Well, he is a god, so the wings make sense, I suppose. But better is the line of thought that people who fall in love are “flighty.”
A flabby whiskerless boy? With a little bow and arrow? He is a mere boy because, like youth, love can be so very irrational. The mighty physique of early Eros was replaced with a bow and arrow to show he still had power.
Speaking of eros, eroticism and such. In Christian tradition, there are four types of Love (most languages, like English, don’t have enough words for this rich domain of emotions). One is Eros, which is the special intimacy that exists between wife and husband. Two of the other three are Agape and Charity. I forget the 4th.
Anyhow, that’s a bit of a path to near to the end of this essay and the end of any Valentine’s Card, where you might find XOXO. [This is also inscribed at the end of notes, or, nowadays, within text messages]. We all know this means hugs and kisses – or kisses and hugs – right?
Until recently I’ve always had this backward, thinking that O meant kiss (looks like a mouth to me) and X is the hug (looks like 2 arms crossing). But no, ‘tis ‘tother way ‘round.
Seems as though the X comes from the time not so long ago when most people were illiterate but were required to sign a legal form or document. So, they wrote just “X.” They could have made any symbol, but the first letter in the Greek word for Christ is χ. That’s Chi, which looks like an X. (Pronounced “K-eye”, or “kai”). The symbol was meant, in effect, as attesting before Christ the Lord that your “signature” was a true testament: a sacred vow. Then, to establish validity, they then kissed the X – as in “sealed with a kiss.” That might be legend, but it’s as good as any other explanation.
Speaking of the Greek letter χ, it is near the end of the Greek alphabet. The way the coronavirus is mutating, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the chi-variant before this is over.
Back to XOXO. As for O in the XOXO script, it’s a “hug” because it’s supposed to be two sets of a pair of arms, each individual pair forming a semi-circle. Linked together, they form a full circle. Looking down from above, it’s two people in full hug, – well, the arms form a distorted loop, or circle. And, if the arms make a circle, which symbolizes true love – no beginning and no end, they’re like a wedding ring. Another legend has it that many Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated into America were also illiterate. Upon entry they also had to sign documents. Seeing Christians mark their documents with an X, they went the opposite way and used O. Which offsets the X, but doesn’t convey quite the same thing as hugs and kisses.
Despite all the above—the legends, the myths, the lore and the gore, the guesses and the tangents – this much is true: February 14th is Valentine’s Day. And – truth – it’s as good a day as any to show special people in your life just how important they are. Card or note? Sure. Sign it “Love”, mark it with an X, an O, or an XOXO. And we’re not playing tic-tack-toe here.
Joe Girard © 2022
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