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ESSAYS BY JOSE CARILLO
On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. Every essay featured here will be archived in the forum.
The Real Score About Valentine’s Day
“If you must write about Valentine’s Day,” my wife Leonor admonished me the other day, “don’t be a spoilsport. By all means take a break from your grammar columns, but don’t try to take away the romance from Valentine’s.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Leonor,” I said, “I won’t be a spoilsport. Why would I want to do that? On the contrary, I want to tell lovers all over the world that they are right on target in doing the things they do on Valentine’s Day. I mean, you know, exchanging love tokens, whispering sweet nothings, having dinner by candlelight—good, old romance the way it should be.”
“Then you’ve got nothing really new to say,” she said. “You’ll just recycle the same old story that everybody recycles this time of year.”
“Not with this one, Leonor. I have a new thesis: that people should thank their lucky stars they can celebrate Valentine’s Day not so different from how the ancient Romans did it. As you know, those people started it all almost a thousand years before the Christian evangelists came to Europe. They had this much-awaited love festival on February 14, precisely the same day as today’s Valentine’s Day. It went by another name, of course. They called it the Lupercalia.”
“Umm...interesting,” Leonor said. “Tell me more about it.”
“The Lupercalia, in plain English, was the ‘Feast of the Wolf-God.’ It was an ancient fertility rite in honor of a god who protected sheep from the wolves. Its high point was a mating game, a lottery for young, unmarried men and women. The organizers would write the names of qualified, interested women on small pieces of parchment, then drop them into a big vase. Each qualified male drew one piece from the vase, and the woman whose name was on that piece became his date or ‘steady’ for one whole year.”
“That simple? Unacquainted couples were paired with no courtship, no legal and religious mumbo-jumbo?”
“Yes, Leonor, and they had a whole year to find out if they were temperamentally and sexually compatible. If they were, of course, they married and raised a family.”
“How wonderfully uncomplicated, but how unromantic! And my heart bleeds for the young couples that had an eye for each other beforehand. With, say, 1,000 women’s names in that lottery, the probability of a woman getting picked by a man she already liked would be next to zilch; so were the chances of a young man picking the woman he really liked. And the chances of a mutually attracted pair being mated? That’s 1/1,000 multiplied by 1/1,000 or one in a million, right?”
“Right, Leonor! A priori romances simply couldn’t bloom unless the partners decided to mutually violate the rules. But there was one good thing going for that lottery, I think: it leveled the playing field for love and procreation. It must have exquisitely churned and enriched the gene pool of the ancient Romans.”
“Maybe so, but don’t you think their ritual was so elemental, so...shall we say, ‘uncivilized’?”
“That’s saying it mildly, Leonor. It scandalized the early Christian missionaries. They found it decadent, immoral, and, of course, unchristian. So they tried to change it by frying it with its own fat, so to speak.”
“Well, the clerics simply revoked the practice of writing the names of young, unmarried women on the pieces of parchment. They wrote on them the names of the Christian saints instead. And you know what they offered to the young, unmarried man who picked the name of a particular saint?”
“The privilege of emulating the virtues of that saint for one whole year.”
“What spoilsports, those clerics! Why would any sensible lover whether male or female want to play that sort of game? For Pete’s sake, that lottery was for love and romance and chance encounters, not for sainthood!”
Valentine was imprisoned by the Romans circa 270 A.D. for violating
a ban on performing marriages during wartime, then stoned to
death on February 14, Lupercalia Day.
“That’s right, so the Romans resisted the new mechanics and stuck to the old. It was two centuries before the evangelists again tried to stamp out the Lupercalia in a big way. In 490 A.D., Pope Gelasius canonized a Roman by the name of Valentine. He was, by tradition, a priest martyred 220 years before for violating a ban on performing marriages during wartime. Valentine was stoned to death on a February 14, Lupercalia Day, so his feast day was conveniently made to coincide with it. In a sense, the clerics finally succeeded in Christianizing the ancient rites, but only in name and only edgewise, in a manner of speaking. As history would prove, no power on earth could stamp out its earthly and earthy attractions.”
‘You’ve got a lovely story there,” Leonor said, “and you kept your promise of not being a spoilsport. So Happy Valentine’s Day, my love!”
“For you, Leonor, Happy Lupercle’s Day just this once, OK?” (2004)
(This commemorative reposting of the author's February 13, 2004 column in The Manila Times retains the text of the original material in its entirety but has been updated to provide thematic visuals.)
This essay in conversation form, which first appeared in my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004 and subsequently formed Chapter 142 of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, is part of a collection of my personal essays from 2003 to 2007. I’ll be running one essay in conversation form from the selection every Wednesday starting January 11, 2017 until February 15, 2017.
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