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Symbolism marks the day

Alan Braunholtz

The Roman Empire has left its mark in our lives in many ways. One of these is Valentine’s Day, which originated as a combination of feasts Feb. 14 and 15 to honor the gods Juno Fructifer (the queen of gods and goddesses) and Lupercus (the god of shepherds and sheep). Customs at these feasts honored fertility and love with a lottery creating couples as men pulled young women’s names out of a box, predating the 1970s car keys in a bowl party by several thousand years.Valentine entered the scene several times. Legend has up to seven different Valentines linked – often by some nasty demise – to Feb. 14. The most quoted is a priest who secretly married couples despite a ban by the emperor Claudius. Married men didn’t join the army, and the empire needed soldiers. He got caught and then executed on Feb. 14. A later emperor declared this a holy day to honor Saint Valentine instead of Lupercus, and Christianity absorbed another pagan festival.Christianity never seemed to be comfortable with sexuality, so it changed the lottery, replacing couples’ names with the names of saints. Apparently, you emulated the life of the saint you drew for the year instead of wooing. When the Renaissance loosened the church’s control on all aspects of life, a more humanistic society started to celebrate sensuality again in paintings and poetry, and quickly reconnected Feb. 14 with love and the fertility of springtime. Feb. 14 became the date that medieval people believed birds started to mate.Groundhog Day is appropriately close to Valentine’s Day. When Punxsutawney Phil appears to see his shadow, he’s really getting a jump-start on wooing, in the most respectable Victorian sense. After a three-month sleep Phil or any groundhog goes for a walk through his stomping ground. He drops in every female’s burrow and stays the night, but only to introduce himself and snuggle. Nothing happens except for this “will you be my Valentine?” visit. After a few nights of cuddling with all the females in the neighborhood, Phil returns home and sleeps for another month. When he wakes up for good in March is when he gets busy.We still celebrate Valentine’s Day with symbols connected to the beauty and sensual side of nature. Our use of flowers predates recorded history with some used 50,000 years ago in burial sites. Flowers are perfect for expressing love. They’re beautiful, delicate and tough. Different in as many ways imaginable, from tiny shy petals to flamboyant statements of sex, with no Georgia O’Keefe interpretations needed.Giving flowers on Valentine’s Day probably started in Sweden in the 1700s. King Charles imported the poetic “language of flowers” from Persia. Repressed Victorian England later embrace this, as flowers could express hidden emotions they dared not speak. Now, we know little beyond that roses equate to love and lilies to beauty. Back then, every flower, arrangement, even the hand of presentation or the scent on clothes could send a message. Weird how we’re so often afraid to use simple words, instead relying on secret codes that allow us the luxury of denial.Flowers may be visually perfect as a living symbol of beauty, life and love, but chocolate has few equals at the sensual end. Cocoa butter melts just under body temperature and each bite becomes a warm squish of 500 bewitching flavors. Add in the cocktail of mood-enhancing chemicals and you have a potent mix of indulgent pleasure. It contains anti-oxidants, flavonoids that reduce plaque formation in arteries, and stearic acid, a fat that may reduce blood cholesterol. The naughty and nice label gets more and more alluring where chocolate is concerned.The Valentine debate of “flowers or chocolate” is a non-starter. Give both and a hand-written message expressing some variation of “Wow! I love you and I’m so glad you love me, too.” Then all the bases are covered with no secret codes to worry about.By the way, those X’s we tend to throw about on our letters started out as a legal signature for the illiterate, who then kissed the mark in front of witnesses to show sincerity. Amazing how symbols evolve.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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