Valentine’s Day was never about romantic love in my family. Mom always gave us Snoopy Valentines. Dad would write hilarious rhymes. My stepmom created gorgeous tea parties with chocolates and flowers, and we even gave red treats to our dogs. It was a chance to tell each other how much we love each other, and it was… well, really fun! So it’s no surprise that we’ve continued these traditions, with our own kids and dogs, and we all look forward to St. Valentine’s Day.
Most people know Valentino was from Italy. That’s another thing I love. I really love being Italian. Whenever I go back to New York, I feel my family’s Italian history and heritage surging through my soul. My olive-skinned mother would get so excited for the Italian street festivals – you know, where the center of the pavement is the red, white, and green of the Italian flag, instead of double yellow? And we had to eat the street food, like sausages with peppers and onions, and pizzelle. We’d wander around listening to folk music, proudly wearing our ‘Kiss Me, I’m Italian’ buttons, and giving each other lots of kisses.
When my kids were young, we found a lovely book about Saint Valentine at our library. The author acknowledges how little we know, while weaving stories and legends to portray the general consensus about this 3rd century figure, whose love and faithfulness led him to defy empire and save lives, in part by marrying couples in secret (so the men wouldn’t have to serve in the military). We were part of a Methodist queer welcoming church at that time, and we loved the idea that Valentine subversively married people for whom the state had denied the right to marry. We also venerate Valentine for reaching out to prisoners with heart shaped messages of comfort; for faithfulness to his whole community despite grave danger; and for his willingness to die rather than fight or support militarism. A far cry from sappy sentimentalism, and a love much more vast than romance alone. An inspiring Italian ancestor, indeed.
Appropriately, Saint Valentine’s Day takes diverse forms all over Italy as well. Padua celebrates children and family; they hand out little keys that have been blessed, as a symbol of the bonds of family love, and pray for wellness for all children. In Vico del Gargano, they decorate the town – and Val himself – with thousands of oranges, a jubilant festival of local artisans and foods, with juice from the blessed oranges to bring joy in the coming year.
My daughters and I had the incredible opportunity to travel around Italy, and our experience really brought home the juxtaposition of liberation and empire in that tiny boot of land. Small villages with olive groves and vineyards, crowds of African refugees selling brightly lit toys to tourists, humble shops handed down through generations… and in Rome, cramped catacombs of dust and bone, and colossal – I mean, mind-bogglingly huge – testaments to empire around every corner. And I realized something anew. It’s all part of Italy – all of it. We must choose what to carry into each generation, and what to heal and leave behind.
My great grandparents came from the tiny, poor village of Spadola, right on the toe. They never learned a single word of English. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been to leave all they knew and travel to Naples – a synonym for ‘hell’ in Italian curses – and then take ship across the ocean. They taught my grandfather, their only child, how to make pasta, and sauce, sun dried tomatoes, wine, and meatballs. When he married my German-Scottish Nana, he fell in love with the welcoming and diverse Methodist community – apparently the Swedish and Scottish women of Brooklyn kept marrying Italian men! So he taught her how to cook. And then he carefully taught his grandson, my brain damaged cousin, who makes amazing sauce to this day. We all learned how to twist our pasta properly (heaven forfend we cut spaghetti!), and we grew up saying Scusi and Andiamo, and even though my very proper mother never, ever swore, she liberally seasoned her language with Madonna and Mannaggia fa Napoli. Apparently, cursing in Italian… didn’t ‘count?’
As you can tell, I am prodigiously proud of my Italian heritage. Because heritage is what we make of it, right? My great grandparents adopted my grandfather from an orphanage. Yes, his birth parents had been Italian; but all those recipes and expressions and family stories about my uncle at three years old stuffing an entire meatball in his mouth at Grandma’s, they are all because an immigrant couple couldn’t have children, and at a time when you adopted a child for hard labor, they adopted him for love, and lavished him with as much love as they could for the rest of their lives.
So, with San Valentino, I bless the vastness of love, dangerous love, subversive love, sacrificial love. Why limit Love? Would Valentino want people to feel lonely or sad on his day of remembrance? Would Saint Valentina, martyred around the same time because she refused to allow her beloved Thea to be tortured and die alone? Maybe theirs was a romantic love between two brave, humble women; or, maybe, they were beloved sisters of faith, with a deep and powerful friendship. Does it matter? They loved each other, so much, that they, too, were willing to die for that love.
As this 14th of February approaches, amidst pandemic grief, isolation, fear, and loss, my prayer for each of us is that we all feel held in Love. Love that reaches through all cultures and creatures, all times and all places. Love that heals our hurts and inspires our courage. Whether we celebrate V-Day to end violence against women and girls, or the birthday of early Methodist feminist Anna Howard Shaw; Take Back the Night events with vagina shaped chocolates or performances of the Vagina Monologues; build community through local ministries or Healthy Masculinity and Galentine’s Day events; or have a St. Valentine’s Day tea party with our cats, may we each experience a Love that transcends the brokenness, and offers our hearts both solace and joy.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee does Climate Resilience Chaplaincy in the Boston area. She recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology and she is an adjunct professor for Wesley Theological Seminary. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.