This week on February 14th Americans across this nation will celebrate the holiday known as Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is the annual holiday honoring love and romance and as you probably know it is celebrated by the custom of sending greeting cards or gifts to express affection. The cards, known as valentines have become big business in the U.S. According to the National Greeting Card Association, 25% of all greeting cards sent this year will be valentines and that will amount to over a billion dollars in profits.
What you may not know is the history behind the holiday, the background of the saint for whom the holiday is named or the origin of the custom of the cards themselves. So for you who enjoy a little history as I do, I did some research, compiled the facts and I invite you to please read on.
The historic roots of Valentine’s Day are found in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility celebration that was enjoyed annually by the ancients on February 15th . In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius I recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day by declaring it Saint Valentine’s Day. It had become customary as Christianity came to dominance in Europe that pagan holidays were recast and changed to reflect Christian values. Celebrations such as Lupercalia were frequently renamed for early Christian martyrs and the festivals became feast days instead. It was in accordance with this tradition that the Pope renamed Lupercalia for Saint Valentine. These are the clear facts about the holiday.
But who is this mysterious saint and why has the honoring of love and romance become synonymous with his name? That is where the topic becomes interesting because the history of Valentine’s Day and its patron saint is surrounded by obscurity.
The reason that the holiday’s history is so unclear is because there were at least three Catholic Christian Saints in the early history of the Christian church by the name of Saint Valentine. Exactly which Saint Valentine this early pope intended to honor has been lost in history and remains a mystery. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, concerning the history of the three Saint Valentines: one was a priest in Rome, another a bishop in Terni and the third was a virtual unknown except for the fact that he met his end in Africa. The astonishingly fact however, is that all three Valentines were chronicled as to having been martyred on February 14.
Most scholars believe that the “real” St. Valentine whose name the holiday bears was the priest in Rome. It is thought that the priest attracted the disfavor of Roman emperor Claudius II around 270 and that is where his fame and his trouble began. Credence is given to this Saint Valentine being the one Gelasius honored because of the amount of myth and legend surrounding his name. The Legenda Aurea, a collection of stories recounting the lives of the saints, which was compiled around the year 1260 and was a medieval best seller, contained several entries about the Saint Valentine of Claudius II’s reign.
“According to the Legenda Aurea, St Valentine was persecuted as a Christian and interrogated by Roman EmperorClaudius II in person. Claudius was impressed by Valentine and had a discussion with him, attempting to get him to convert to Roman paganism in order to save his life. Valentine refused and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity instead. Because of this, he was executed. Before his execution, he is reported to have performed a miracle by healing the blind daughter of his jailer.
The same Legenda Aurea, also portrays Valentine as a priest who refused an unattested law attributed to Claudius II, allegedly ordering that young men remain single. The Emperor supposedly did this to grow his army, believing that married men did not make for good soldiers. The priest Valentine, however, secretly performed marriage ceremonies for young men. When Claudius found out about this, he had Valentine arrested and thrown in jail. On the evening before Valentine was to be executed, he wrote the first “valentine” himself, addressed to a young girl variously identified as his belovedthe jailer’s daughter whom he had befriended and healed. It was a note that read “From your Valentine.”
On February 14, 270 AD, Valentine was executed and that is a documented fact. While the legends may be embellished―the combinations of these stories—represent the most plausible explanations of how Valentine became a Patron Saint, and spiritual overseer of an annual celebration of love. Early in the history of the Saint Valentine Feast Day it became linked with a custom which involved young Romans offering women they admired, and wished to court, handwritten greetings of affection on February 14. This is presumably how the greeting cards acquired Saint Valentine’s name and by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.
The custom of the Valentine’s Day card spread with Christianity, and the holiday is now celebrated all over the world. One of the earliest cards that museums have on display was sent in 1415 AD by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. The card is now show cased in the British Museum.
Whoever Valentine actually was and whatever the circumstances of his death actually were may have become a mystery cloaked in myth and legend, but one thing we know for sure is that he was an actual person who was martyred for his faith. His existence cannot be denied because archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to him.
In 1836, relics that were exhumed from the catacombs on the Via Tiburtina, then near (rather than inside) Rome were identified with Saint Valentine and placed in a casket. These remains were transported to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland where they reside today. Many tourists visit the remains on Saint Valentine’s Day, when the casket is still carried in solemn procession to the high altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and all those in love.
Catholic or non-Catholic it does not change the facts about the origins of Valentine’s Day. Do you have any opinions or comments about the great Valentine’s Day Mystery? Please feel free to contribute.
As for me, I like to focus on the fact that it doesn’t really matter which of the three early churchmen was the real Saint Valentine, they were all martyrs for the Christian faith and that makes all three of them worthy candidates for the respect and honor of fellow Christians. It is just too bad (IMHO) that the meaning of the holiday could not have remained focused on, or even become inclusive of; honoring love for God, which is the one thing we know with a certainty that all three Saint Valentines had in common. I guess the bottom line is–what can we expect in a society that has worked over time to even eliminate God from Christmas and Resurrection Day celebrations–it is the way of the world.