I've been looking up the roots of Valentines Day. There are a lot of stories, but I'm sharing the one that spoke to me.
Apparently (actually no surprise here) Valentine's Day may have its roots in pagan cultures. At the beginning of February, halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, the Celts would celebrate Imbolc to mark the beginnings of spring and the stirrings of life in the ground in the Northern hemisphere. This was also a day to clean out your home and invite in Brigid, goddess of creation, sustenance and wisdom into your home to ensure fecundity and prosperity in the land, the animals and yes, people too.
This was also a time when the worst of the winter had passed and women no longer needed to rely on a man as a source of life saving body heat at night. Mothers and daughters would gather their boyfriends’ animal pelts, set them on fire, and feast on winter squashes and root vegetables until the fires burned out. Then they would go on a little road trip together, grieve and release the death of old relationships followed by rituals of spiritual renewal and growth.
Enter the Roman church and its habit of co-opting pagan rituals for its own purposes--mainly expanding its power over the lives of its followers. Due to the high death tolls in the wake of its many wars, purgings and plague, the church needed to do something to compel procreation. So they thumbed through the Saint Files and extracted the traumatic, crisis filled story of St. Valentine and his beloved to overlay on an existing women’s ritual based on independence and the right to choose one’s own mate. Another moment in history when religion has actively gone out of its way to control women’s freedom and their bodies.
Here’s Valentine’s story: It came to pass that Emperor Claudius II banned marriage for his soldiers because he thought their attachments to wives and family would distract them from ”bringing it” in warfare. Valentine felt this was unfair, so he broke the rules and arranged marriages in secret. It’s said he wore a ring embossed with a cupid by which couples seeking him out could identify him.
When Claudius found out, he had Valentine thrown in jail, tortured and eventually sentenced to death. While awaiting death, he befriended a guard who’s daughter was ill and needed some healing. Valentine provided this, and she got better but, you guessed it, one thing led to another and they fell in love. When he was taken to the chopping block on the 14 February he sent her a love letter signed "from your Valentine".
At the same time as pushing this co-opted story of Valentine, the church also declared it heresy for any woman to leave her boyfriend or husband, thereby systemically tightening the noose on love and a woman’s freedom to have an active choice in it. A culture of men conquering passive women through courtship was created, shot through with Cupid’ arrows, and laden with sweets. The flowers that women once lay on the symbolic graves of relationships they chose to end were now laid in their laps, symbolic of the death of their pro-active right to choose.
A woman’s role was now to sit and wait. This is cross-cultural by the way, which means that it is a program of patriarchy in general, not just the patriarchy of the Roman church. My parents’ marriage was arranged. This is a transaction in which love is not a thing. It’s about class, caste, education, religion, shade of skin and any other thing that could divide, conquer and control, right down to a woman’s weight or eye colour. My aunt used to quote a Bollywood movie (or was it Merchant Ivory and Ruth Prawar Jhabvala?) line to me when I was a little girl. “When we were young, we put flowers in our hair. Then we would sit by a window and say, Has he come? Has he come?” This, in essence, was my education in dating. I would love to say that this message was eradicated, culture and society-wide, in the Free Love of the 60’s and women’s rights movement in subsequent decades. But, sadly, I can’t. It’s still there. Just have a look at V-Day advertising and the countless Bollywood and Hollywood movies (made mostly by men) that continue to valourize men and objectify women.
But what if we took some Ancient women’s wisdom and put it back into Valentine's Day? That means reclaiming this time of the year for self-love and self-care. There has been a movement for such a reclamation, popularized through a 2010 episode of the US sitcom, Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler explains its meaning while throwing an annual Galentine's Day bash for her friends, but it's still tainted with patriarchal ideas of womanhood. There are elements of poking fun at women's gifts to each other and the event ends with her mom's hook up story. I imagine that on that ancient women's road trip, such stories might be shared also, along with stories about relationships ending.
Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks Galentine's Day is a good idea. Google Galentine's Day and you'll get a lot of links to many things self care. In addition to listings of multiple events for a girl's night out, I also found a self-love song playlist from The Tempest. And I just got an email from my local bra shop inviting me to a Galentine's event at their store.
I love the idea of this time of year being about self-love and self-care. It's the first step to being able to claim your own power and effect the change you want to see in the world. Evaluating aspects of your life that work (and don't) is very much a part of self-care and nurturing.
To have a period of time set aside in the quite winter months to consider your relationships and decide which ones support your life's journey makes complete energetic sense. You can take the time to evaluate and decide which ones you'll keep and nourish and which ones are toxic and need to go. Or you could choose which ones need work and look at what you’re willing to do to breath new life into them, come spring. This means that any relationship could be up for review, not just intimate ones. Also, I love the idea of going on a little road trip with your girlfriends to grieve, let go and have your process witnessed as you do the same for others.
Imagine how much healthier our psyches might be if we actually took the time to consider our own needs, the needs of our loved ones and nourish these relationships the way we might nourish the soil in our spring gardens, before planting? And imagine if this was something both genders did on a regular basis, clearing out the old, revitalizing what remains and making room for the new?
And what if we took this time to plant some seeds of self-empowerment and positive dreaming for our lives, instead of just waiting? Ooh, I’m getting goosebumps!
Sherazad Jamal, Free Lion Team