Every February, across the country, chocolates, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? The history of Valentine’s Day – and its patron saint – is shrouded in mystery. But we do know that February has long been a month of romance. St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. So, who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?
Until fairly recently, the Catholic Church recognised at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. Their feast day was on 14th February. In 1969, however, the commemoration of these saints was abolished (along with much else) because the men of the Church were probably embarrassed about the very little we know about the men who bore that name and the very obvious pagan associations the feast has.
Nonetheless, three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14th February. One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), the which two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city. Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.
The most likely candidate for the principal honours of the feast is the Valentine who was a priest in third century Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realising the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Another version of his life says that Valentine, with St. Marius and his family, assisted the martyrs in the persecution under Claudius. He was apprehended, and sent by the emperor to the prefect of Rome, who, on finding all his efforts to make him renounce his faith ineffectual, commanded him to be beaten with clubs, and afterwards, to be beheaded, somewhere around the year A.D. 269.
Certainly about the year 270 Pope Julius I is said to have built a church near Ponte Mole to his memory, which in William of Malmesbury’s time led to what had been known to the ancients as the Flaminian Gate of Rome (and is now the Porta del Popolo), was called the Gate of St. Valentine.
The greatest part of his relics is now in the church of St. Praxedes. His name is celebrated as that of an illustrious martyr in the sacramentary of St. Gregory, the Roman Missal of Thomasius, in the calendar of F. Pronto and that of Allatius, in Bede, Usuard, Ado, Notker and all other martyrologies on this day. For the moderns, apparently, not much to go on…
The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14th February, i.e. halfway through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice. Perhaps the earliest to be found is in the 34th and 35th Ballades of the bilingual poet, John Gower, written in French; but Lydgate and Clauvowe supply other examples. Those who chose each other under these circumstances seem to have been called by each other their Valentines. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes thus about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (I have modernised the spelling somewhat), addressing the favoured suitor:
And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.
Shortly after, the young lady herself wrote a letter to the same man addressing it “Unto my right well beloved Valentine, John Paston Esquire”.
Thus St. Valentine’s feast became associated in the popular consciousness with romance though in fact only because his feast day was used to mark the start of spring. In the same way later his name has become associated with the massacre perpetrated by Al Capone. Some point to his role in marrying young couples when the emperor had forbidden it. This seems to me, however, to be an attempt at creating a link with hindsight. It is more likely that, along with the other martyrs, St. Valentine was killed because he refused to renounce the faith. Others adduce the legend that Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl, possibly his gaoler’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed ‘From your Valentine’, an expression that is still in use today. That he may have written a letter signed in this way is not impossible but it is not likely to have been of an amorous nature since he was, after all, a priest.
Perhaps more likely is the coincidence of the date of St. Valentine’s martyrdom falling on the eve of the Lupercalia. The pagan custom, in honour of the goddess Februata Juno, involved the drawing of girls’ names from an urn by the boys of the city. The boy would then spend the rest of the Lupercalia with the girl thus drawn, sometimes, indeed, for a whole year. It was Pope Gelasius who declared 14th February to be St. Valentine’s Day around 498 A.D. The Roman ‘lottery’ system for romantic pairing was deemed un-Christian and outlawed. In some places, however, the names of the opposite sex were replaced by those of saints and the young men, and later young women, were encouraged to imitate the saint whose name they drew for a whole year.
In Great Britain, St. Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. By the end of the century, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings. Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Rowland began to sell the first mass-produced valentines in America, these were elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colourful pictures.
According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. (An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas.) Approximately 85 percent of all valentines are purchased by women. In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, andAustralia.
St. Valentine is the patron saint of bee keepers, betrothed or engaged couples, greeting card manufacturers, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, travellers, young people and he is invoked against fainting, epilepsy and plague.