The Real Story of Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day approaching next week, I wanted to write about the true story of who St. Valentine was and why we associate him with honoring our sweethearts. The problem is, while there are many legends and myths about the origins of this observance, there is very little reliable history about exactly who the real person was or how he came to be associated with honoring that special someone in our lives.

The best evidence seems to be that “Valentine” was a fairly common name in ancient Roman times, shared by at least three different saints with a connection to February 14. The name “Valentine” comes from the Latin valens, meaning “worthy, strong, powerful” – it’s also the root for our word, “valiant.” For our purposes, Saint Valentine was a clergyman, perhaps a priest or a bishop, from the central Italian town of Terni, around the year 270. He was arrested for his faith – it was still illegal in those days to be a Christian – and brought before a judge named Asterius.

Valentinus (the Latin version of his name) was discussing faith with the judge, who challenged him to prove his faith by performing a miracle: restoring the sight of the judge’s young, blind daughter. The priest prayed for the girl and laid his hands on her eyes, and the child could see. Humbled by this act of God, Judge Asterius asked for instructions for what to do next. Valentinus ordered the judge to destroy all the idols in his home, fast for three days, and be baptized. Church history says that the judge freed all the Christian inmates in his custody, then he, his family, and 44 adult members of his household were baptized.

Later, Valentinus was arrested again for his continuing work in ministry, and this time, he was brought before Emperor Claudius II. The emperor liked the old priest and wanted to set him free, until the priest tried to convince him to become a Christian. Valentinus was sentenced to death. Legend says that just before his death, the old priest sent a note to the judge’s daughter – the one healed of her blindness – and he signed it, “from your Valentine.”

A different story goes that the emperor had decided that married soldiers didn’t fight as well as single men, and so he issued an order forbidding young men of military age to be married. But, according to this legend, the priest Valentine kept secretly performing marriage ceremonies, even though it was against the law. He was executed for this on February 14, 270, and in so doing, became remembered as the patron saint of young lovers.

Other accounts suggest a totally different origin for the day. A pagan Roman festival known as “Lupercalia” occurred sometime from February 13–15, involving a matchmaking lottery and a wild night of drunken celebrations. This history says that at some point in the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I established the Feast of St. Valentine’s Day to “Christianize” this festival.

Whatever its origins, it remained a minor festival of the church until the time of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. (I remember reading through Chaucer’s most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, in a high school English class. Thanks, Mr. Wernig.) Anyway, sometime around the 1370s or 1380s, he wrote a poem called “Parliament of Fowls,” with the line, “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” The name stuck, and within a generation, people were writing little poems and notes to their love interests, and these communications became known as “valentines.”

Anyway, fast forward to the 1860s, and candymaker Cadbury’s began selling boxes of heart-shaped chocolates. Hershey’s Kisses came out in 1907, and Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards debuted in 1913. And according to the National Retail Federation, US consumers spent a record $19.7 billion in 2016, in what is believed to be the highest total ever for the holiday.

However you choose to celebrate the day – flowers, chocolates, a pretty card, enjoying a nice meal eating out somewhere – here’s wishing you and your special someone a very happy and loving day.

“From your valentine.”

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