After determining that there were no official holidays or special ‘fete’s’ or feast days during my visit to France, I decided to video that which interested me and see where it would lead. So I began shooting: I began in Paris where extent of the twice life size bronze gods flanked on old stone buildings and the subjects of monuments, goddesses, women bearing their breasts, men and women writhing around with snakes, lions and various mythological beasts. The women in Paris wear clothing is made for touch and hugs their bodies. And in the park the women and men hold and press into each other tenderly. Even at it’s most famous cemetery houses monuments to such names as the graves of Jim Morrison, Chopin, Sarah Bernhart and Balzac. So I confirmed to myself that I was attracted to the romance of Paris, like everyone else.
I boarded a train south to Cheateaux Ruioux, a farming region 2 hours south west of Paris, known in part, as the life-long home of George Sand, the most famous woman writer in 19th-century France who’s writing was a frank exploration of women’s sexual feelings and their passionate call for women’s freedom to find emotional satisfaction. She had acquired an exotic notoriety from her penchant for wearing men’s trousers and smoking cigars and who had discarded her real name, Aurore Dudevant, for publishing reasons. She met Frederic Chopin in Paris at a recital given by Chopin at his apartment. A nine-year relationship followed that set the standard in French society for a romantic liaison during the romantic period of the early 1800’s that was illuminated by literary and musical creativity.
The train ride through the VanGogh countryside took me through blankets of gold and black birds flying low on a sunflowered horizon. I arrived at a yellow stone farm estate where the only sounds come from the social life of sparrows. While the story had inadvertently begun in Paris, it had become perfectly clear where it would go: toward a village 2 kilometers up the road. Chantal, an elegant and strong woman, who was wife of a retired farmer and a grandmother, told me of a small village called St. Valentine whose 240 inhabitants hosted 5000 on February 14, many whom were couples who would come to marry on that mid-February day. The town was certainly quiet now in the middle of July. However, it could be a backdrop for a visual story about Valentines Day in France and the local people were more willing to assist me at each turn.
In Rome in AD 270, Valentine had enraged the mad emperor Claudius II, who had issued an edict forbidding marriage. Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers, because the men didn’t want to leave their families for battle. However, the empire needed soldiers, and so his solution was to abolish marriage. A man named Valentine, who was the bishop of Interamna, married young lovers in secret in response to the edict. Claudius learned of this “friend of lovers,” and had the bishop brought to the palace. Impressed with the young priest’s dignity and conviction, the Emporer attempted to convert him to the Roman gods to save him from execution. Valentine refused to renounce Christianity and imprudently attempted to convert the emperor. He ended up in prison awaiting a most certain execution. The story goes that while Valentine was in prison, he fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius. Through his unswerving faith, he miraculously restored her sight. On February 24, 270, Valentine was clubbed, stoned and beheaded. But before he was executed he signed a farewell message to her “From Your Valentine,” a phrase that would live well after the author’s death.
Later on, in the fourth century BC, the Romans engaged in an annual young man’s rite of passage to the god Lupercus. The names of teenage women were drawn at random by adolescent men. A man was assigned a female companion, for their mutual entertainment and pleasure (often sexual), for the duration of a year, after which another lottery was staged. Determined to put an end to this eight-hundred-year-old practice, the early church fathers sought a “lovers’’ saint to replace the deity Lupercus. They found a likely candidate in Valentine, a bishop who had been martyred some two hundred years earlier. So in A.D. 496, a stern Pope Gelasius outlawed the mid-February Lupercian festival. But he was clever enough to retain the lottery, aware that the Roman people love games of chance. Now into the box that had once held the names of available single women were placed the names of saints. Both men and women extracted slips of paper, and in the ensuing year they were expected to emulate the life of the saint whose name they had drawn. The spiritual overseer of the entire affair was its patron saint, Valentine. With reluctance, and the passage of time, more and more Romans relinquished their pagan festival and replaced it with the Church’s holy day.
When we parked the car in St. Valentin (French spelling), folks peered from the doors in their brown stone houses to see who had come visiting. A car coming into the town is big news here. We stopped in the tourist office, a one room building where a woman shared with me the 1997 photo album of the Valentines Day events. Preparation for festivities began in October with town meetings where people are assigned to make paper flower decorations for virtually all of the buildings and houses. In February the weather is cold but there is usually no snow or rain so the paper flowers hold. There is a parade in the morning, where the couples who walk into their vows, a marching band young children dressed as bride and groom and a Ms. Valentine flanks the parade. A wooden sculpture of St. Valentine is carried throughout the town in the parade. A tent is set up where food is eaten and games are played. A town in Japan who is a sister city boasts many representatives who fly in for the ceremony, as well.
The Post Office was painted in pastel murals by a well-known regional (?) artist who had recently died last year. His work can be seen throughout the walls on the village. The paintings are what I would describe as French folk art, simple innocent renderings a couple in love nearly style of comics. The post office sells special heart stamps as well as post cards of the work. Now housed in the British Museum, Charles, Duke of Orleans sent the earliest extant Valentine’s card in 1415, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. In the sixteenth century, St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, attempted to expunge the custom of cards and reinstate the lottery of saints’ names. He felt that Christians needed models to emulate. However, this lottery was less successful and shorter-lived than Pope Gelasius’s. And rather than disappearing, cards proliferated and became more decorative. Cupid, the naked cherub armed with arrows dipped in love potion, became a popular valentine image. He was associated with the holiday because in Roman mythology he is the son of Venus, goddess of love and beauty.
In 1797, a British publisher issued “The Young Man’s Valentine Writer,” which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called “mechanical valentines,” and a reduction in postal rates in the next century ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing valentines. That, in turn, made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously, which is taken as the reason for the sudden appearance of racy verse in an otherwise Victorian era.
We met with the mayor of the little town and interviewed him about his experiences as the mayor during such a significant holiday. Because of the relationship with the The defining moment of this journey was driving home from the village, sunflower fields on either side, my comrade and new friend Chantal driving slow enough so I could crane the video out the window at the passing sunflowers.