Valentine’s Day—what does it make you think of? Candy hearts, kisses, flowers, cards, a romantic dinner with someone you love? Valentine’s Day is the biggest gift-giving holiday aside from Christmas and yet, like Christmas, the holiday has a deeper meaning behind it. So, who was St. Valentine, and why do we celebrate him?
The Legend of St. Valentine can be complicated. Scholars affirm that the feast day actually celebrates the lives of three martyrs named Valentine.
The first was the third bishop of Terni in Italy. He was killed by Claudius II (also known as Claudius the Cruel) in 270 A.D. for disobeying a direct edict. You see, Claudius’ army suffered from a lack of recruits, and the Emperor, being a soldier himself, decided that lack of enlistment was due to too many men falling in love, marrying and participating in what he considered “cowardly” careers.
His answer to this problem was a law that forbade young men of fighting age to marry. Actually, this seems to have led to more military successes, but the young men were not happy.
Valentine helped these singletons by secretly performing marriages in defiance of the law. He eventually got caught and was beaten to death for his trouble. One version of the tale says that while he was in jail, awaiting his death, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. As he was pulled away to his execution, he handed her a love letter signed “from your Valentine.”
The other two Valentines were a Roman physician who embraced Christianity, and an early missionary who died in Africa. Very little is known of either of these two men.
Valentines Day may predate any of these early Christian saints, however. The Feast of Lupercalia falls on February 15th. For hundreds of years before Christianity, this fertility festival was celebrated by young people drawing names of the opposite sex out of a box. The person whose name you drew was supposed to be your significant other for the next year. The names were written on ribbon or pieces of paper, and were worn around the participants’ wrists for everyone to see. The saying “she wears her heart on her sleeve” resulted from this game.
Throughout the centuries the Valentine traditions we know were slowly added to the holiday. The earliest mention of flowers and letters is in John Gower’s French Ballades (1330-1408). Chaucer also mentions them in his Parlement of Fowls, 1382. Henry VIII officially established a holiday in 1537. Cards became part of the celebration in the 17th Century and the practice grew even more the next century when postage became cheap and mass-produced.
Flowers became essential during the reign of Henry IV of France. His daughter had a Valentine party every year, and each lady who attended was given a bouquet of roses from the Valentine she chose.
Valentine’s Day has been around a long time. If you are dreading the holiday, however, you can take comfort in the fact that Valentine’s feast day was removed from the Catholic liturgy in 1969, and even the pope has questioned Valentine’s identity.
For the rest of us, wear that heart on your sleeve and spread a little love.