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Sorting through St. Valentine's Day myths

St. Valentine
St. Valentine
St. Valentine ©Catholic Online

On the St. Valentine's Day website one can learn about the holiday. It lists the most romantic songs and movies, the funniest gifts, even Valentine’s Day jokes. One can also read myths surrounding the origin of Valentine’s Day.

Did you know that some believe Valentine's Day began in pagan times? The people of Rome organized a holiday on February 14 to honor Juno, the Goddess of Women and Marriage. The next day the Feast of Lupercalia, a fertility festival, began. During Lupercalia boys would cut goats hide into strips, dip them in blood, and slap women with them. Ouch. That sounds more like an urban legend.

Other Valentine's Day stories include a man named Valentine. In one story, Valentine was a priest who lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius II when Rome was involved in war. According to this legend, Claudius cancelled engagements because many potential soldiers were getting married to avoid enlistment since only single men were called upon. However, Valentine defied Claudius and secretly married couples. When Claudius discovered this, he had Valentine put to death on February 14. This romantic tale resulted in St. Valentine becoming the patron saint of lovers.

Then there’s the one about Valentine being popular among children. This was during the time of Roman persecution of Christianity. Valentine’s refusal to worship the Roman gods angered Emperor Claudius II and he was thrown into prison. During a year of imprisonment the children missed Valentine and would toss notes and flowers into his cell. Some argue that Valentine was killed because he tried to help Christians escape from prison. Others say the Emperor was impressed by Valentine's kindness and promised to free him if he would worship Roman gods. Valentine not only refused, but tried to convert the Emperor to his faith. That’s when Claudius ordered his execution.

So, which legend is true? If one wants the truth, then one must go to the source. Valentine was a Catholic priest and, according to Catholicism, he’s a saint because he assisted Christians during the persecution under Claudius II around 270 AD. After his arrest he was sent to the prefect of Rome, who failed to persuade Valentine to renounce his faith. For his steadfast love of Jesus, Valentine was beheaded. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 Valentine's Day. After that, St. Valentine became regarded as the Patron Saint of, among other things, affianced couples, happy marriages, love, and young people.

The idea that Valentine's Day was created to supersede the pagan holiday of Lupercalia has been dismissed. And according to Jack Oruch, some current legends about St. Valentine, including the inspiration for romantic love, can be traced to Geoffrey Chaucer's poem “Parlement of Foules.” Even though the holiday’s association with romance may be shrouded in mystery, the day St. Valentine died is now an occasion to celebrate love.

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