Twenty-two years ago in my first year of marriage, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I forgot Valentine’s Day! It took awhile for my wife to forgive me for that, but trust me, I’ve never forgotten it since. In 1996 I guess it wasn’t that big of a deal to me. Since then, my marriage has grown richer because I now realize things that are important to my wife are a big deal and I need to care about them.
This last week as I was standing in line with all the other husbands to buy beautiful red roses for my wife, I wondered how this Valentine’s Day thing got started. Who is this Saint Valentine anyway?
Valentine’s Day is named after St. Valentine, who has become known as the patron saint of lovers. Very little is known about him so how did he come to bless lovers’ hearts in the middle of February? We always imagine some combination of a cherubic Cupid and a saintly old man with a nice smile fulfilling that role. The truth is more complicated. First of all, there was more than one Saint Valentine. There were actually three.
All three men lived during the 3rd century A.D. Two lived in Italy – Saint Valentine of Rome and Saint Valentine of Terni – while the third resided in a Roman province in North Africa. So which Saint Valentine do we celebrate on February 14th?
That would be the life of Saint Valentine of Rome who, far from being lucky in love on February 14th, was beheaded. Hardly a romantic ending. The church itself has some doubts about what specifically happened in Saint Valentine’s life. The Latin term is Valentius, meaning worthy, strong, and powerful. Several martyrs ended up with that name upon their death.
St. Valentine of Rome was supposedly a temple priest who was executed near Rome by the anti-Christian Emperor Claudius II. The crime? Helping Roman soldiers to marry when they were forbidden to by the Christian faith at the time.
According to one historical account, the Roman Emperor went to such measures against Valentine because the saint tried to convert him to Christianity. This enraged Claudius, who tried to get Valentine to renounce his faith. The martyr refused, so the emperor ordered him beaten with clubs and stones, and subsequently executed him.
So how did we go from Christian martyrs to Hallmark cards, chocolates, and bouquets of flowers? When Pope Gelasius I (papacy – March 1, 492 to November 19, 496) dedicated February 14th to the saint and martyr Valentine, he chose that date to replace the traditional Roman feast Lupercalia, a pagan festival which had persisted for several generations among a normally Christian population. The pagan fertility celebration was marked by all sorts of bizarre rituals and the church was eager to replace such practices with its own focus, so St. Valentine became the saint of lovers.
As St. Valentine’s Day was spread to England and France by Benedictine monks, the practice started to acquire more modern characteristics in the Middle Ages. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in particular, is credited with spreading the notion of romance through his writings, some dedicated to St. Valentine.
Writing “valentines” to your beloved is linked to that same time period, with the oldest such note dating to the 15th century. Shakespeare also took part in popularizing the link between Valentine’s Day and love, writing about St. Valentine’s Day in a romantic context as part of his “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Exchanging “valentines” or love notes (often heart-shaped) on Valentine’s Day further spread throughout the Anglo-Saxon countries in the 19th century. Large-scale marketing and production of greeting cards started with the Industrial Revolution as early as mid-19th century. This process of commercialization of the holiday continued, especially in the United States, during the 20th century, adding additional traditions like gifts of chocolates, flowers, and jewelry.
So while the original St. Valentine was likely tortured and beheaded on February 14th, his sacrifice for his Christian faith has become the Valentine’s Day we have today.