The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sacred Hearts and Fishy Scribblers

St Valentine is revered all over civilisation and Oxford Street as the patron saint of cards with hearts on them, chocolates in boxes with hearts on them, cuddly heart-shaped cushions bearing sticky little messages in squiggly little script with heart-shaped dots on the i’s, and all things shaped like, or decorated with, little red hearts; but the reasons for his exalted status are less generally known.

It seems that during the early days of Christendom, when the Romans were still offering a martyr’s death free with every circus ticket, the early Christians used to communicate with each other by a variety of secret codes, of which the most famous is of course the fish. Nobody knows exactly why they chose the fish as their symbol, and eventually, at the Council of Trent, the decision was made to abandon it once and for all in favour of the cross. The decision to adopt the sign of the cross was made in light of a new translation of the Gospels, by a certain Prophylactoid Sycophanticus of Byzantium, which among other things cleared up the piscatorial ambiguity in the verses stating that a Roman soldier pierced the Saviour’s side with a pike.

Be that as it may, St Valentine was one of a minor sect of Christians, bravely preaching universal love and tolerance for everyone except the worshippers of Osiris, Mithras, Jupiter, Marduk, Moloch, Baal and so forth, and calling down fire and brimstone in the usual fashion upon the heads of all the other Christian sects who were preaching love and tolerance in various perverse and blasphemous ways, all of them now largely indistinguishable.

This sect of St Valentine’s were known as the Valetudinarians. In fact, it is not known whether Valentine was actually the saint’s real name, or if posterity has simply re-christened him, so to speak, after the sect to which he belonged. They were known as the Valetudinarians because the constant brawling between all the different schools meant a high rate of invalidity even among those who escaped the circus. Indeed, one of the major reasons why Christianity survived the Roman persecutions is that the Christians tended to reduce each other to such a pitiful condition that the lions lost their appetite. Any Christian sent to the circus, on hearing the words pabulum contusus (bruised meat), would instantly breathe a sigh of regret (which to the uncharitable pagan observer often sounded deceptively like relief) at the untoward delay in his journey towards heavenly bliss.

In fact, members of the Valetudinarians and other sects were often in such a battered state, what with black eyes, broken fingers etc., that they were quite unable to draw their symbolic fish in the approved fashion, and instead resorted to a peculiar scrawl which evolved through many permutations to become the heart-symbol we all know and love. Of course, if you look very carefully, in the proper light and the correct state of faith, hope and gullible credulity, you will see that the heart-shaped symbol of St Valentine’s Day still resembles that age-old fish the early Christians used to draw. At least, it resembles a scrawled fish more than it ever did a real heart.

Not much is known about the life of St Valentine himself, except that he was apprehended one day in the act of drawing a heart on a wall; hence the phrase cardiac arrest, which is still commemorated in the cards and all the rest of the paraphernalia with which lovers try to paper over the cracks towards the middle of February.

Why St Valentine’s Day traditionally falls on the fourteenth of February is another intriguing question. The generally accepted answer is that the church fathers decided the calendar needed spicing up a bit in the dry season between Christmas and Easter, and thus were able to come to a happy arrangement with the calendar makers, who were all deeply perturbed at the way February used to leap from the thirteenth to the fifteenth every year. Thus, like many Christians, St Valentine helped to promote goodwill among men and harmony in the world, once he had been dead for a while.


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