REH’s take on Valentine’s Day

In a letter written to Novalyne Price on February 14, 1936, Howard displays a certain playfulness with her throughout. I suspect it was a way from escaping the reality of his mother’s health. While Hester still had some good days, overall her health was deteriorating. Toward the end of the letter, Howard makes the following remarks about Valentine’s Day:

This being Valentine Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.

I had never heard of Howard’s definition of Valentine’s Day as he described it to Novalyne – he may have been pulling her leg – or perhaps read that particular version of its origin somewhere. Nonetheless, there are historical facts to back up some of it.

First, though highly speculative, is the notion that Valentine’s name was originally “Galantine,” signifying “gallant,” a word with more obvious associations with courtship, as well as chivalrous knights. The shift in consonant to “v” is explained as the way medieval French peasants pronounced the letter “g.” For those familiar with French cuisine, galantine is also an elaborate entree consisting of de-boned stuffed meat, usually poultry or fish, which is poached, served cold, and coated with aspic.

Additionally, there are several popular versions of how Valentine’s Day came to be. One is it started in the time of the Roman Empire, during the third-century. This is the version that shows some of its roots in Howard’s definition.

In ancient Rome, February 14 was a holiday to pay tribute to Juno, who was the Queen of the Roman Gods and Goddesses. She was also known as the Goddess of women and marriage. The following day, February 15, began the Feast of Lupercalia.

During those times, young boys and girls lived separate lives. But on the eve of the festival of Lupercalia the girls’ names were written on slips of paper and placed into a large jar. Then each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and they would be partners for the duration of the festival. In some cases, the pairing of the children lasted an entire year, and often they would fall in love and  later marry.

This was the era of the rule of Emperor Claudius II and Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. And Claudius the Cruel, as he was known, was having a hard time getting soldiers to join his legions.

The Holy Emperor, it seems, determined that married men were unwilling to join the military, wanting to be with their wives and children in their homes instead of fighting and dying to keep the barbarian hordes at bay, hang on to lands the army had conquered and expand the Roman Empire even further.

So the Emperor decreed that no single man could become engaged to be married and outright outlawed marriage in the Roman Empire. The domestic union and home life was not for young and able-bodied Roman males who he felt they should pledge their allegiance to him, not their wives and families.

Enter a Roman Catholic priest named Valentine who was loving and kind-hearted and openly defied the Emperor’s demand. He secretly married many a young couple in dim candlelight inside damp basements and dusty wine cellars.

Pope Felix I also disapproved of Claudius’ law and decreed that a change be made to reinstitute marriage, but the Emperor was having none of that. This was the early days of the Catholic Church and it was struggling to gain a foothold and secretly converting those who worshiped the Pagan Gods to Christianity.

Soon Claudius discovered Valentine’s unlawful and clandestine activities and took action. He first tried to convert him to Roman paganism, but to no avail. According to legend, Valentine was imprisoned and put to death by beheading on the vespers of the Feast of Lupercalia, on February 14, 270 A.D.

In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honor the martyred priest. Eventually, that date became the date for couples to exchange love messages and St. Valentine became the patron saint of lovers.

Of course, Novalyne was not destined to be Howard’s Valentine in February of 1936, just four months before his death. He had pushed her away and into the arms of his best friend, Truett Vinson the previous year. But it is clear he and Novalyne remained close friends to the very end of his life.