St. Valentine, a priest and martyr, died during the persecution of .Emperor Claudius II, in 270. The day of his death, which became his feast day, was February 14. From early Christian times, young men and women on this day declared their love for each other, or chose a “steady partner” for a certain period of time. Our greeting cards on February 14 are a modern form of this ancient practice.
The connection of St. Valentine with this tradition of youthful courtship and love is not explained by legends like his writing a letter to the daughter of the prison master. or February 14’s being the day of mating for the birds. Such legends are of later date and were only invented to give some reason for the already existing custom.
The historical basis of the custom is the ancient Roman youth festival on the eve of the Lupercalia (February 14). The young people of the Roman Empire celebrated the day by declaring their love for each other, proposing marriage or choosing a partner for the following year (which started on March 1 in the centuries before Christ). This youth festival on February 14, with its pledge of love, stood under the patronage of the goddess Juno Februata.
When the Empire accepted Christianity, the worship and patronage of pagan gods naturally ceased. But the least of youth continued, and so did the traditional customs. In place of the pagan goddess however, they took as patron the Christian Saint whose feast day it was. Thus St. Valentine became the heavenly patron of youths and young lovers. They placed their affection, love, courtship and engagement under his care and protection. Keeping the ancient practice of choosing partners, they designated this relation by the name of the Saint. In countries which once belonged to the Roman Empire, this tradition was preserved through the Middle, Ages. In England it endured even longer, and from there it came to the United States.
The words. “You are my Valentine,” originally meant: “I offer you any comradeship of affection and love for (a certain period of time), and I am willing to consider marriage, if this companionship proves satisfactory for both of us.” In this country the traditional meaning has been expanded to include all persons for whom a special affection is felt. Thus, the children send their cards to anyone they “love,” in the sense of liking him very much.
Does it seen unreasonable to suggest that friendship and dating between young people could still be under the special protection of St. Valentine, the heavenly patron of youths and young lovers? Perhaps this ancient tradition might prove to be very valuable and helpful if revived again in its full meaning. Parents could certainly draw consolation from the fact that their children are conscious of this heavenly guidance and protection in the years of courtship and early love.
I know a family where the mother has taught her children to say a prayer to St. Valentine every night, that he may protect them in their companionships, guide their feelings of love and affection, preserve them from all dangers and strengthen their good intentions.
Even with smaller children, who send Valentine cards to the persons they like very much, this custom should not remain a mere formality. Parents could easily explain that such a message of sincere affection demands mare than the mailing of a card. At least on St. Valentine’s Day, if not oftener, the children should thank God far the precious gift of loving and affectionate friends, imploring St. Valentine’s intercession and blessing for each one of those to whom they have sent their cards.