February 14th, known to many as Valentine’s Day, is a date which brings with it multiple connotations. For some, it is a celebration of the love in their life. Yet, for others, it serves as a reminder of what they believe they are missing out on or love that has been lost. It’s silly really, but I was a bit upset when I recently discovered my husband would be interstate at a conference on that very date. After all, surely it’s just another day. Or is it?
The origins of Valentine’s Day
What is Valentine’s Day anyway and how did it begin? My research revealed there was not one, but three Christian martyrs by the name of Valentine or Valentinus in Roman times. Stories have become muddled and hazy over time, but there are two most likely suspects. One Valentine helped Christians escape from Roman prisons, whilst the other was a Christian priest who defied the Emperor’s edict outlawing marriage and performed weddings in secret. Both paid the ultimate price for their beliefs and accompanying acts of kindness. The story goes that Valentine (but which one?) sent a letter to a girl he had fallen in love with, signed “from your Valentine”, shortly before his execution. It is claimed this was the very first valentine. February 14th is the anniversary of his death.
In AD496, the Pope declared February 14th Saint Valentine’s (patron saint of lovers) Day in an attempt to tame and Christianise a pagan fertility festival called Lepercalia, with roots in Ancient Rome. During Lepercalia, men hit women with blood-soaked animal skins to ensure their fertility and an ancient Roman version of Married At First Sight was held, where women’s names were drawn from an urn in a type of matchmaking lottery. Women would then live with the men who selected them for the next year. Oh, and all of this was done naked, with accompanying partying and drunkenness. No wonder the church didn’t like it!
During the 14th Century, the poet Chaucer linked St Valentine with romance and written valentines started to appear in the 1400s. Those who couldn’t write, simply drew a heart. By the middle of the 18th Century in Great Britain, small gifts and handwritten notes were being exchanged as tokens of affection on February 14th. Pre-printed cards appeared around 1900. The day has become increasingly commercialised ever since, with billions spent on valentines cards and gifts every year.
How is this relevant today?
I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in celebrating dead saints or observing ancient pagan fertility festivals. I don’t like the commercialism that now accompanies Valentine’s Day either. I do, however, believe it is an opportunity to be kind to others, which basically, is what the Valentine martyrs were found guilty of. Thankfully, these days, we can usually do so without risking our lives.
Valentine’s acts of kindness
In the past, I have prepared family Valentine’s dinners with themed table decorations, placed chocolate hearts into my children’s lunch boxes and bought or baked cakes and other heart shaped sweets for my husband. One year, my teenage kids got cards with “Yoda best” and Yoda holding a glow stick light sabre on them. I love doing these little things; it’s my love language.
For a few years now, I’ve prepared Valentine’s gifts for the children in my class; coloured pens with tags saying “write on, valentine” and “you’ve got the write stuff” (year 5, 2017), glow sticks with tags saying “you make my heart glow” (year 4, 2016), heart chocolates with a “you rock” tag (year 5, 2014). Each year I prepare these little gifts, place them on student desks and wait. I watch carefully as each child arrives, discovers their gift and reads the tag. Every single time their eyes light up, even if just for a brief moment. They are excited, some more obviously than others, and they feel special, valued and loved. They are not expensive gifts, they don’t take a lot of effort to prepare, but they do mean a lot. So much, in fact, that many tags have been spotted in pencil cases and desks months after Valentine’s Day, kept because they’re special to the recipient.
This year, I don’t have a class and as I saw a dear friend post photos on social media of cute little Valentine’s gifts she had prepared for her son to give his classmates, I felt a little sad. I really love preparing those little valentines and love watching the kids’ reactions to them even more.
Giving is good for you
Giving has long been associated with blessings, or benefits to the giver. The Bible tells us:
“More blessings come from giving than receiving” (Acts 20:35)
and “a generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” (Proverbs 11:25)
Scientific studies have recently backed this up. According to Konrath and Brown (Effects of Giving on Givers, 2012) ‘giving to others is associated with positive health outcomes’ such as ‘decreases in cortisol and increases in progesterone and oxytocin.’ Now, I am certainly no scientist, but I do know less cortisol, the stress hormone, means less stress and more progesterone means less anxiety. When combined, we are better able to cope and more resilient. Oxytocin, the love hormone, makes us feel warm, connected to others and even euphoric. More of that has to be a good thing! Suttie and Marsh (5 Ways Giving is Good for You, 2010) refer to an ‘oxytocin high’ which may last for up to two hours after an act of giving either a tangible gift or a gift of time and talents. Wow! Waters and Jach (Why Giving is Good for the Soul, 2016) add that charitable acts can ‘reduce blood pressure, enhance sleep and lower rates of heart disease’. However, they warn these effects are only felt when the giver is not seeking them and is, instead, focused on helping others. This brings us full circle, back to the Bible, which tells us “You should each give, as you have decided, not with regret or out of a sense of duty; for God loves the one who gives gladly.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
Everybody loves cake
After some considering, I realised I can still do little Valentines kindness acts this year to help those in my world feel loved and valued. I didn’t even have to look far. What better place to start than my home away from home, the place I spend way too much time according to my husband, my gym – Ufit_Australia? This is where I sweat it out and push myself in return for amazing support and encouragement from the owners and fellow members alike. All the other Ufitters are ordinary people just like me, working at becoming fitter, stronger, healthier versions of ourselves, one group training session at a time. We share stories, complain about burpees and prowlers and celebrate our everyday victories as we train. Why not show a little of my appreciation for these guys with a small Valentine’s gift?
I baked Persian Love Cake cupcakes because, like my mother, I also love to feed people. These cakes are deliciously spiced and not too sweet, are on the healthier side of the cake family and of course their name makes them perfect for Valentine’s giving. If you’d like to try them for yourself, you can find the easy recipe at http://www.skinnymixers.com . The cupcakes were packaged in little bags with red ribbon and a handwritten sticker, simply stating “You are special. You are loved. You are enough.” Off I trotted to the gym, Little Red Riding Hood style, with my basket full of goodies. The announcement of early Valentine’s treats caused quite the stir. My concern that cake may not be the most appropriate gift for my gym buddies was short lived, as everyone was pretty excited to be receiving an unexpected gift. This was a simple thing to do, yet the recipients were grateful and I got the bonus of an oxytocin high. Win win.
A Valentine’s Challenge
My challenge to you, whether you usually do something to mark Valentine’s Day or just do your best to ignore it, is to find one opportunity for a Valentine’s act of kindness and just do it! Don’t be scared. It’s not difficult. It doesn’t have to cost a lot except a little thought and effort. Do it anonymously if that makes it easier for you. Just make sure you do it. As Bono says, “Are you tough enough to be kind?” If you are, prove it!
I’d love to hear about your VAKs – Valentine’s acts of kindness, and how they are received. Please share with a comment.