Steve Russell

St. Valentine and the Idea of True Love

St. Valentine believed in marriage but is true love a necessary component to making it last?

Indians used to get sucked up into early Valentines gee-gaws because of the association of bows with Indians, which is kind of odd because there really was a St. Valentine and he was not a cherub but a human.

A more sensible association would be lovers and chocolate leading to Indians because chocolate—despite what marketing has done for Switzerland and Belgium—originates with American Indians and still is grown where the Spanish discovered it.

The other customary gift, flowers, spans the entire world, although the species and the colors and the smells differ.

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The last association between Indigenous Peoples and this day would be the grand argument among human cultures between arranged marriages and the individual search for One True Love. While we are supposed to be primitives and that means arranged marriages, it’s a lot more complicated than the stereotype.

St. Valentine is the patron saint of lovers in the Roman Catholic Church and several other Christian churches. He got the gig because he insisted on marrying people in violation of the national security policies of Emperor Claudius II, who had decided that single men make better soldiers than married men.

St. Valentine took the will of a couple to override the orders of the emperor. When he would not quit hitching people on their request he was tortured and beheaded.

This gory stuff may not be completely absurd. I have been battling a deadly disease and even facing death on that level can awaken feelings of love or fan romantic embers to white hot.

My first experience of the connection between death and love was in 1966. I was severely injured and according to my medical records unconscious. My memory—take it or leave it—claims that I was being wheeled into an operating room where my odds would not be great. I looked up at a nurse on the medical team, who reached down and took my hand and gave it a squeeze.

I’m in love with that woman to this day and I never even saw her face. Only her eyes were visible with the surgical mask hiding the rest of her face. Some wisps of hair around the edge of the mask told me her hair was black.

I came around two days later in a different hospital in a different city still pining for the love of my life based on holding hands for a few seconds.

How very Hemingway. Take my emergency room story how you like, but the feelings were real to my 19 year old self and they are real now. Hemingway sold a lot of books telling stories at the intersection of death and love.

What’s love got to do with it?

I ask the question on my 22nd anniversary. When my wife and I merged our fortunes, we were both middle aged and it was the third marriage for each of us. Nothing romantic about those statistics.

My birthday is February 10; hers is February 12. So, naturally, we tied the knot on February 11, pulling together three days we dubbed our “personal holidays,” not noticing that we could stretch the idea to five days by bringing in St. Valentine’s Day.

Many indigenous cultures practiced arranged marriages and some still do. The settlers seldom hesitate to put this cultural difference on the list of ways Europeans are superior. Never mind that the first major assault on the Americas was instigated by one of the most famous arranged marriage power couples, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Castile and Aragon became Spain. I am not informed whether Issy and Ferd ever fell in love, but they certainly caused enough death to sow romance all over the Western Hemisphere.

Let me tell you about my two daughters and two sons.

Both daughters finished their educations and made their way on the job market, so they did not need to be supported. They waited until much older than average and they knew their husbands a good long time before they tied the knot. Bottom line, they married for love but in a prudent manner.

Both found themselves abandoned in middle age with several children.

Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives’ Inherited Pain

Download our free report, Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives’ Inherited Pain, to understand this fascinating concept..

The boys both married as teenagers. One marriage was entered because of an unplanned pregnancy and the other so my GI son could live off-post. These were practical reasons addressed without a lot of romantic pretense.

Both of my daughters in law bumbled their way to be competent adults. They stood by my sons through thick and thin and both sons tell me now they are madly in love with their wives and could not imagine life without them.

Two kids did everything right and then married for love.

Two kids did everything wrong and married to solve immediate problems.

In my family, romantic love took a major beating. I just faced death again, this time from a surprise cancer rather than a surprise accident, and the danger still makes love burn brighter, none brighter than the way I feel about my wife and all of my kids, those who married wisely and those who did not.

I am sorry St. Valentine was executed for marrying people because I think St. Valentine had it right. They are adults. It is not useful to deny either their practical needs or their feelings. Both are real and important. I would bet that the indigenous cultures still practicing arranged marriages have similar stories on both sides of the question.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Be kind to each other and love will find you.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.


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St. Valentine and the Idea of True Love