Category Archives: Valentine’s Day

Love & Lent

It’s Valentine’s Day and it’s also the first day of Lent. That’s one of the dangers of a February holiday like Valentine’s Day: sometimes it falls on a fasting day. A really nice dinner is a traditional part of many Valentine’s Day celebrations; sometimes, like this year, Lent shows up as an unwelcome guest at the table. Whether you fast or not is up to you. I certainly won’t say anything.

Nonetheless, with the passing of Fat Tuesday, the excess of Carnival is done. It’s now Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a forty day journey of penitence, fasting, and almsgiving. The idea of abstaining from meat and things of the flesh (milk, cheese, eggs) during Lent was instituted by Pope Gregory in the late 6th century as a way of helping his flock prepare for Easter and the miracle of spring by mirroring Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the desert. But although it is a season of denial imposed by religious belief, the fact is that in earlier times this was a season of scarcity in general. Folks did their best each fall during harvest time to store away food and provisions to last through the winter, but by this time of year, these things were beginning to get scarce. The salted meat would be running low, the eggs running out. There’s not much to gather in the wild and not much is growing yet in the fields. In the Northern Hemisphere, we are just beginning at this point to spring out of winter. In times past, if you were lucky, you’d still have a decent quantity of flour in the barrel and a good store of dried beans, root vegetables, and dried fruits and nuts and hopefully some salted fish. Even without a decree from the Pope, some fasting would almost always be necessary to get your family through the remaining weeks of winter.

As I mentioned in the Book of Days chapter two days ago, titled “Fat Tuesday,” the traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. He is in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones. She is known as La Vecchia. Her time gets the name Quaresima, which sounds so much more lovely than our stark English word Lent. Sometimes La Vecchia takes the form of a baked loaf of bread in the shape of a skinny old woman with seven legs. One leg is broken off with each passing Sunday of Lent, a calendar of sorts, marking the passage of this spare season.

Nowadays, most Catholics simply abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Restrictions have loosened a lot over the years, perhaps in direct proportion with our abilities to keep food on the table at all times of the year. The restrictions are mostly now just symbolic. But the custom we have of dyeing eggs at Easter comes directly out of the old ways of Lent: folks were so excited to welcome eggs back into their daily diet each spring, they celebrated by dyeing them with natural dyes like beetroot, chamomile flowers, red cabbage, and onion skins. I still like dyeing eggs with these things of nature.

Being a time of spare solemness, it is not surprising that there are not many celebratory foods that accompany Lent. There is one, however: The humble pretzel. At their most basic, pretzels are made with just three ingredients, all Lenten-friendly: flour, salt, and water. It is thought that the name “pretzel” is derived from the Latin bracellae: “little arms,” essentially, evoking the prayer posture of early Christians, who prayed with their arms crossed over the chest. Go ahead, try it right now, then look down at your chest: class pretzel shape. This penitential bread––again, so common nowadays so as to be nothing special––has a history that goes back many many centuries. The first pretzels were thought to be made in the 6th century. Some historians think they go back three centuries more.

Connexions like these are, I think, so fascinating. That a common pretzel can have such interesting roots (and deep ones, at that) and mark our celebratory days (or penitential ones, in this case) is such a wonderful thing.

Love is at the heart of our table no matter the meal or the season, even in the humble dishes that make up our meals during Lent. Perhaps there is no better Valentine’s Day than one that falls on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are made from the earth and to earth we shall return. The time is short. Ash Wednesday is, at its core, a day to remember the brevity of things and to understand that we are here to love and to lift each other up. These forty days of Lent are a good time, I feel, to focus not on what we deprive ourselves, but on what we can do to enrich the lives of others. So go on: Love with all your might.

 

Image: “La Quaresima Saggia” by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. Engraving, c.17th century. The haggard old woman of Lent, trodding upon the remnants of Carnevale, framed by the foods of her season: fish and snails, onions and other root crops, beans, and I’m pretty sure those are cardoon stalks at the top right.

 

Be Mine

Valentine

I am generally not a sappy guy, but a little sappiness is okay once in a while, and especially if it is Valentine’s Day. The valentines in the photo above were made for us by our niece, who was 5 at the time. That was just a couple of years ago, but I can easily picture us saving these two glittery paper hearts for many years to come. These are the things you save for a long time if you have even a quarter ounce of sappiness in you. And while we do try to keep things simple and not hold on to too much stuff, a handmade Valentine from your 5-year old glitter-crazy niece can be pretty difficult to part with, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The tradition of giving sweet little somethings on Valentine’s Day goes back a long way. The day is named for a saint, even though we rarely use that “saintly” descriptor nowadays, but there is no real connection between St. Valentine and these gifts. There have been two St. Valentines in history, and no one is quite sure which of the two is celebrated today. Our celebration is most likely a combination of them both. There was a Roman priest named Valentine who was martyred on February 14, 269, for giving aid to persecuted Christians before becoming a Christian himself, but there was another Christian martyr named Valentine who scratched a message on the wall of his prison cell before his death. The message was to his beloved, and he signed it “Your Valentine,” and perhaps this is where the romance of Valentine’s Day comes in.

The day itself has long been considered the day that birds choose their mates for the year. Robert Herrick alludes to this belief in this poem from 1648:

Oft have I heard both youths and virgins say
Birds choose their mates and couple, too, today
But by their flight I never can divine
When I shall couple with my Valentine.

Up until the 19th century, the celebration of Valentine’s Day often began the evening before, at least in England and Scotland. Young men and women would take part in a sort of lottery on St. Valentine’s Eve, drawing names out of a box. The person that luck gave to you in this lottery would be your Valentine, and small tokens would be exchanged. Many weddings were known to come out of this St. Valentine’s Eve sport.

There are a few traditions of romantic divination that have come down through the centuries for Valentine’s Day, as well. The first unmarried person you’d meet on Valentine’s morning might just be destined to be your bride or groom, for instance, as the case may be. John Gay describes this in his poem “The Shepherd’s Week: Thursday; or, The Spell”… which happens to be a burlesque on the pastoral poems of another poet of the same era (early 17th century).

Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind
Their paramours with mutual chirpings find;
I early rose, just at the break of day,
Before the sun had chas’d the stars away,
A-field I went, amid the morning dew,
To milk my kine (for so should housewives do)
Thee first I spied––and the first swain we see,
In spite of fortune shall our true love be.

I don’t necessarily believe in divination, but I do believe in love, and I do believe that no kind of love is better than any other kind. What matters is being open, so that where love takes root, we let it grow.

 

This is a reprint of a Convivio Book of Days chapter posted originally on Valentine’s Day, 2014. Now our niece is a couple of years older yet. She still likes glitter, which makes me glad. Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Be Mine

Valentine

I am generally not a sappy guy, but a little sappiness is okay once in a while, and especially if it is Valentine’s Day. The valentines in the photo above were made for us by our niece, who was 5 at the time. That was just a couple of years ago, but I can easily picture us saving these two glittery paper hearts for many years to come. These are the things you save for a long time if you have even a quarter ounce of sappiness in you. And while we do try to keep things simple and not hold on to too much stuff, a handmade Valentine from your 5-year old glitter-crazy niece can be pretty difficult to part with, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The tradition of giving sweet little somethings on Valentine’s Day goes back a long way. The day is named for a saint, even though we rarely use that “saintly” descriptor nowadays, but there is no real connection between St. Valentine and these gifts. There have been two St. Valentines in history, and no one is quite sure which of the two is celebrated today. Our celebration is most likely a combination of them both. There was a Roman priest named Valentine who was martyred on February 14, 269, for giving aid to persecuted Christians before becoming a Christian himself, but there was another Christian martyr named Valentine who scratched a message on the wall of his prison cell before his death. The message was to his beloved, and he signed it “Your Valentine,” and perhaps this is where the romance of Valentine’s Day comes in.

The day itself has long been considered the day that birds choose their mates for the year. Robert Herrick alludes to this belief in this poem from 1648:

Oft have I heard both youths and virgins say
Birds choose their mates and couple, too, today
But by their flight I never can divine
When I shall couple with my Valentine.

Up until the 19th century, the celebration of Valentine’s Day often began the evening before, at least in England and Scotland. Young men and women would take part in a sort of lottery on St. Valentine’s Eve, drawing names out of a box. The person that luck gave to you in this lottery would be your Valentine, and small tokens would be exchanged. Many weddings were known to come out of this St. Valentine’s Eve sport.

There are a few traditions of romantic divination that have come down through the centuries for Valentine’s Day, as well. The first unmarried person you’d meet on Valentine’s morning might just be destined to be your bride or groom, for instance, as the case may be. John Gay describes this in his poem “The Shepherd’s Week: Thursday; or, The Spell”… which happens to be a burlesque on the pastoral poems of another poet of the same era (early 17th century).

Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind
Their paramours with mutual chirpings find;
I early rose, just at the break of day,
Before the sun had chas’d the stars away,
A-field I went, amid the morning dew,
To milk my kine (for so should housewives do)
Thee first I spied––and the first swain we see,
In spite of fortune shall our true love be.

I don’t necessarily believe in divination, but I do believe in love, and I do believe that no kind of love is better than any other kind. What matters is being open, so that where love takes root, we let it grow.