Valentine’s Day is a day celebrated by gift-giving, nibbling on chocolates, guzzling wine, giving flowers and engaging in physical intimacy.
In sharp contrast, Ash Wednesday is a day in the Catholic church calendar marked by fasting, prayer and denying self of body pleasures in remembrance of the suffering of Christ.
For the first time in 73 years, a quirky coincidence happens: Valentine’s Day falls on the same day as Ash Wednesday.
“It is a tricky time for the Church. These two days that have different philosophies coincide. So Christians have to be careful on what they give prominence,” said the chairperson of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, Philip Anyolo.
He urged the congregation to focus on the significance of Ash Wednesday, and shift from the pleasures that come with celebrating the worldly day of love.
‘No sex please, I’m praying’
Caroline Wairimu who goes to the Holy Family Minor Basilica in Nairobi is disappointed. Even though she is an active church member, she was hoping her fiancé who proposed in December would use the day to shower her with gifts, and set precedence of a tradition she wished he would maintain.
“If we cannot celebrate our first Valentine’s this year, he will never take the next one seriously. Men are creatures of habit,” she says.
Father Stephen Njure of Eldoret diocese says the clash of dates should not deter lovers from showing each other affection.
“You can buy your loved one a flower. As long as you do not indulge in activities of the flesh, the church allows it,” he says.
Njure adds that the ‘interesting coincidence’ does not stop at Valentine’s Day. Easter Sunday also falls on April first, globally known as ‘April’s Fool’s – a day for practical jokes and hoaxes.
“I will be preaching about the resurrection of Christ on April Fool’s Day. Some people may find that hilarious,” he says.
The discussion on what is expected of Christians who observe Ash Wednesday has gained momentum as the day edges closer.
Matter of life and death?
Catholic bishops from different parts of the world have had to issue statements on how they hope their congregations will conduct themselves on Valentine’s Day.
In a widely circulated letter on social media, Bishop Robert Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama addresses concerns of the faithful.
“Out of respect for the importance of Ash Wednesday in the lives of so many – including our non-Catholic brethren, and the way this custom underlines the importance of the Lenten season – a dispensation will not be given,” he says in the letter.
He advises those who wish to celebrate Valentine’s to do it a day before. Peter Ouko, who has been married for six years, says there is no need of rescheduling Valentine’s.
“If the day has been set aside for Christ, there is no need to complicate things,” he says.
Women who spoke to Sunday Standard felt that most men are using the ‘Ash Wednesday’ excuse to run away from buying lavish gifts for their women.
“Even men who have not been to church since they got their first communion are now shouting about how they will spend the day in church,” said Grace Kavi, who has been married for four years. She says her husband has been reminding her of the ‘cancellation of Valentines’ but he is enthusiastic to watch the Champion’s League match.
“His Ash Wednesday only cancels Valentine’s, but not football,” she says.
Father Stephen Okello, Philosophy Lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) says Valentines’ day is a secular celebration, and Christians should not dwell on which one is important.
“Celebrating Valentine’s is not a matter of life and death. Nobody will die if they don’t celebrate Valentine’s. Let them focus on the reason Christ died for us. It is the ultimate love story,” he says.
In the USA and Europe, restaurants that ordinarily have meat specials for Valentine’s have been forced to tweak their menus to include vegetarian dishes to cash in on the Catholics who will be keeping off meat on Ash Wednesday.