Today is Valentine’s Day! Today is also Ash Wednesday! This confusing confluence of holidays has only happened four times in the past hundred years.  

So, here’s my story. In my 1941 Kindergarten class, the teacher introduced us to Valentine’s Day, as she did with all the traditional American holidays. We were told about how someone who likes another person can give them secret cards with kind messages. She told us we could bring in cards on February 14 for our classmates. However, she said we could only do this if we brought in cards for all our classmates; that way no one’s feelings would be hurt. We went home and told our moms, and just about all of them found a way to buy cheap cards in quantity. It ended up with hearts and cupids all over the place. Every kid got the same number of Valentine’s and nobody was left out. Pretty silly, but also a good lesson in Americanism, equal opportunity and empathy for others. I believe we did this in our school for the next two years, but I haven’t heard much about the practice in schools since. 

A few years later, I was a boy of ten or eleven, and I began to look at the girls from a different point of view. One in particular — we’ll call her Jane Taylor — seemed like the person I’d really like to send a Valentine’s card to — if I had the courage. She seemed to have all the qualities that my awakening boyhood idolized. 

Then one day in March, lovely Jane Taylor came to school with a smudge on her forehead. I noticed similar dirty marks on other classmates’ foreheads. I realized they were all Roman Catholics, and that’s how I learned about Ash Wednesday. It marked the beginning of Lent, a forty-day period before Easter when people in that Church were supposed to give up certain things they liked: particular foods, like meat, and sweet things, like candy. This was out of respect for Jesus who suffered and died for our sins, and the smudge on Jane Taylor’s forehead was what was left of the mark of a cross made there out of ashes by a Priest. “Saint” Jane Taylor of Valentine’s Day turned out to be “Sinner” Jane Taylor of Ash Wednesday, and that was very confusing to me.  

It’s still confusing! The fact that Ash Wednesday falls on Valentines Day this year dramatizes the messiness of the lives we live. There’s always something to regret, but there’s also always something to hope for. Valentine’s Day is about indulgence; Ash Wednesday is about abstinence. They’re both part of my reality at the same time. When someone wishes me a Happy Birthday, they’re saying both “Another year of life to enjoy!” and “Another year of life gone for good!” That’s reality! 

It’s interesting to remember that Valentine’s Day, like Ash Wednesday, has Christian roots. Saint Valentine, whose birthday is celebrated on February 14, was a Third Century priest in Rome who died as a martyr under persecution. He, mysteriously, became identified as the patron saint of courtly love during the Middle Ages, but he is also recognized in some Churches as the patron saint of epilepsy and in others as the patron saint of beekeepers. It’s hard to imagine how he became the patron saint of Jane Taylor in the young-boy eyes of George Van Alstine.  

I guess it’s a good reality-reminder when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. In fact, it might be good to rename the holiday VaLENTine’s Day so we don’t fall into the trap of believing that any relationship or situation in life is ever going to be 100% hearts and cupids.