SmoochTHE BUSS ON VALENTINE'S DAY The reason we sweat bullets every February 14 over what to buy our lover - or sweat bullets over whether or not we have a lover - has as much to do with death as it does with love.

That's not because we occasionally may have murderous thoughts about our loved one (or lack thereof). It's because a martyred Roman priest, Saint Valentine, was beheaded on February 14 in the year 270. That's where all of this started.

But can romance historians give a simple explanation for why lopping off the head of a saint became synonymous with exchanging mushy little greeting cards and spending hundreds of dollars on dinners, candy, and flowers?

Their stories track about as closely as President Bush's promises on the environment match his record.

But historians at least agree on the martyred priest part. One legend says Valentine was an extremely chaste man with no inclination for swooning lovers, wanton lust, or hearts and flowers. Another says he preached to young Romans on the importance of honor in marriage. All agree the Emperor Claudius II ordered him clubbed and beheaded on February 14. So at least we're clear on the date.

The stories again diverge on exactly why Valentine was killed. According to one, it's because the emperor was angry that he had helped the martyrs during their persecution under Claudius. When Valentine refused to renounce his faith, it was off with his head.

Another account has the saint's teachings on honor and marriage upsetting the emperor, who satisfied his paganistic desires with the relish and fortitude of that rambunctious Wilt Chamberlain.

Still another version says that while the saint awaited his death, he befriended the blind daughter of his jailer and restored her sight - just in time for her to read his goodbye note signed "From Your Valentine." Voila! That special little greeting card expression was born.

But how did his death become synonymous with the day for lovers? Well, first there were those epileptic fits he'd suffered...Those in charge of such matters figured Valentine would be a natural as the patron saint for epileptics. In Germany, epilepsy became known as Valentine's disease. Later the saint was associated with melancholy, now well understood as a by-product of love.

Then the Romans invaded Britain and foisted their festivals and customs on the Brits. These included the Lupercalia, a festival of sacrifice, lust, and nudity, not unlike spring break. Somehow, the saint's name became linked with this festival, always celebrated on February 15. And then there was the February mating of birds, always associated with the mating of lovers.

Later, as Christians merrily obliterated pagan superstitions and dates, they substituted the names of martyred saints for many of the festival dates. Since Valentine died on the eve of the Lupercalia, his memory became entwined with spring rituals, when thoughts naturally turn to love.

Soon, Valentine was hooked into developing notions of flowers, lover's knots, poetry, and valentines. By the 1600s lovers were exchanging gifts - a custom that also harkened back to the Lupercalia, when boys had drawn girls' names to be their mates (the ancient version of dating through the personal ads). From that emerged the French custom which dictated that the first man a girl encountered on the morning of Valentine's Day would become her boyfriend for the year. (A scary thought, given today's apartment living.)

Lovers began writing to each other. In modern times, this has escalated into kids buying huge packets of sappy cards and giving one to everyone they know, even friends they don't much like. Grown children send valentines to mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles. Although greeting-card companies may have benefited from the more widespread dissemination of valentines, it's made it tougher for lovers to come up with a token of genuine affection. Now they have to offer more outrageous signs of their devotion, such as asking someone to marry them as they balloon-bungee jump over the Himalayas.

But fortunately for all concerned, that Roman custom of beheading is lost to history.

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