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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Valentine’s Day and the power of love

BY Xavier Kataquapit Feb 26, 2024

We celebrate Valentine’s Day with wishes for those we are romantically interested in or in general for good greetings to family and friends. However, the history of this day that is celebrated on February 14 is very different.

Everyone grows up with the annual traditions that their parents followed without question. It is stranger to follow long-standing European traditions when you come from an Indigenous background. We simply followed traditions like Valentine’s Day like the rest of Canada as we were told, and no one ever wondered why. Early on it was viewed as a Christian holy day, but over the past few generations it seems to have lost its Christian significance. 

My parents were born in the James Bay wilderness, and they followed a traditional lifestyle that was based on the changes of the seasons. The most important times for us were when the waterways froze, when the ice broke up. Other times were marked for when a bird species arrived, or the arrival of fish or the migrations of caribou herds. The days we commemorated had to with our survival. But when Christian missionaries began imposing their religion on us, we started commemorating holy days like Valentine’s Day. 

I was surprised to learn that many of the Christian holidays we celebrated originated as pagan days of worship. Valentine’s Day is steeped in pagan history and full of controversy and tragic violence. There is some evidence that this day was designed to replace the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, which had to do with celebrating fertility. 

Valentine’s Day became a day of sharing loving greetings in the Middle Ages and the fact that it came out of pagan fertility celebrations makes sense. In the 1700s and 1800s, the celebration of Valentine’s Day took off and people began sharing letters of romantic greetings and then printed cards for those they cared about. 

The Christian tradition is that the holiday commemorates the martyrdom of Saint Valentine in the year 270. However, like many medieval Christian traditions, there are many stories, histories, legends and myths about the identity of Saint Valentine. He is often identified as a leading figure in Rome or someone with the same name in Terni, Italy. Relics of his body, his remains or his items can be found in Rome, Terni, Spain, Ireland and several cities in eastern Europe. 

No one is sure who exactly Valentine was, but many identify him as a Christian figure who worked to free other Christians and ended up being imprisoned for his actions. One thing for sure is he became a symbol of opposition to the Roman Empire and pagan beliefs. 

Even with all the Christian history, pagan symbology is still prevalent in this holiday. The image of Cupid as a cute naked boy shooting arrows of love is connected to pagan rituals and Greek mythology. He started out as a slender youth named Eros who would shoot arrows of love to cause romance to flourish. Later in history, he became the cute little creature we know today as Cupid. 

Valentine’s Day is steeped in mystery, intrigue and violence which gives us reason to pause and consider what it all means. The fact is that no matter the history, the concept of love for others on a special day is still something wonderful. Today, it has evolved into a money enterprise with the buying of flowers, drinks, chocolates and other gifts associated with this day. I am always happy to get a few chocolates no matter what the reason is so from my point of view that is something wonderful.

Love is something we certainly need more of. We are living in a time of wars that don’t make any sense and are causing widespread death and destruction while making some a lot of money. We are dealing with media propaganda and now artificial intelligence that is impacting us in so many ways. The future of Mother Earth is being threatened by climate change. The military industrial complex is threatening nuclear apocalypse.

We need more love than ever and that means caring more about our planet and all of humanity. We need to realize that it is up to us to stand up to fascism, right-wing ideologies and the very wealthy who continue to make money on war, death and destruction.

Love is a pure and powerful force that we need to tap into. I may not identify with many ancient European traditions, but love is an idea I can understand. Love can change everything. 

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.