It’s time to break out the scented candles, satin sheets, and edible undies, folks. Today is that one day a year that single people hate, when couples stare deeply into each others’ eyes for minutes on end, plan romantic surprises and eat chocolate off each other: It’s Valentine’s Day!
Saint Valentine of Rome is what you might call the “Saint Valentine #1”; he was a Roman priest, and little more is known about him although there are legends in spades, such as one tale that says he restored a blind girl’s sight just by laying his hand across her eyes. Whatever it was, he must have done something right because he’s been revered for almost 1,500 years.
The name doesn’t occur in the earliest lists of official martyrs until it’s first seen in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (“martyrology of Jerome”), which is one of the oldest and most influential lists of Christian martyrs dating from the Middle Ages, in the year 460 CE. Interestingly, Pope Gelasius I established the Feast of St. Valentine on February 14 of the year 496, saying that Saint Valentine is among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only known to God” (my emphasis). In other words, Valentine is super important and worthy of celebration, though we’re not quite sure why. He’s since been taken off and put back on the list repeatedly, but according to the church his holiday will always remain whether or not he’s viewed as a saint until it conflicts with some other, more important holiday for a patron saint.
Distinguishing between the tales of the two or three Saint Valentines is tricky because sources conflict about dates and details, but here’s something a little more concrete, although there’s still little evidence to go on. According to tales spun by an Irish priest, Saint Valentine was an matrimonial rebel. Emperor Claudius II reigned during the time of Saint Valentine, and Claudius notoriously persecuted the church. In fact, Claudius had an edict that prohibited young people from marrying; the reason for this was because young unmarried men made better soldiers since being married with families made them more apprehensive in battle, worrying that their death would mean leaving their loved ones behind. As such, this was a very permissive era with polygamy and promiscuity encouraged by the state in mockery and defiance of the church.
In retaliation, Valentine performed the marriages that were, for all intents and purposes, illegal. Valentine married all the young lovers, and still others who weren’t supposed to be allowed to marry as well. Some of the polygamists were drawn to Christianity and some say that Valentine also performed polygamous marriages too, marrying men to more than one woman. Despite the permissiveness of the day, marriage was still seen as a contract between one man and one woman.
Unfortunately, Valentine’s insubordination was discovered in 269 CE. He was put on trial for defying the edict and sentenced to a three-part death: beating, stoning, and decapitation. One of his judges was a man named Asterius, who had the blind daughter. Valentine prayed with Asterius and the girl and restored her sight, at which point Asterius converted to Christianity. Or so it goes.
The last communication that anyone had with Valentine, spoken or otherwise, was a note Valentine wrote to the daughter of Asterius. It was signed “From your Valentine”, which is alleged to be where we get the expression “Be my Valentine” or “Be mine” for short. He was beheaded on February 14.
It’s now a popular pilgrimage for lovers to pay homage to the remains of Saint Valentine in one (or both) of two places. Saint Valentine’s head is morbidly on display, wearing a crown of flowers, in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Inside a wax-sealed box in a small sarcophagus, some of the rest of him — though it’s unknown exactly how much since you can’t really see any of its contents — is in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin.
Saint Valentine #2, more formally known as Saint Valentine of Terni, became the official Bishop of Terni circa 197 CE and is said to have been martyred on February 14 under Emperor Aurelian. The third alleged Saint Valentine metioned by the Catholic Encyclopedia was martyred in Africa with some companions on February 14, but little else is known.
In the calendar of saints in Christian denominations, St. Valentine’s Day has the rank of “commemoration”; however, in 1969 it was removed from the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints while being left on national, regional, and local calendars since so little is known about Saint Valentine for certain.
Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre
The Day of Love
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, published in 1797 in England, was a collection of sentimental verses and love poems for young men who were unable to compose their own. Streamlined and less costly postal services in the ensuing centuries as well as the influx of printed and manufactured cards with romantic verses and sketches (called “mechanical valentines”) led to a widespread increase in the sending and receiving of valentines on February 14. Children were given valentines of sweets, which was supposed to ward off Saint Valentine’s Malady (epilepsy).
In the 1980s, jewelers began promoting Valentine’s day as an occasion for giving jewelry as well. More recently, Valentine’s Day has been seen as a Hallmark holiday due to the heavy commercialization while gifts have extended to all manner of finery such as designer items, high-end fragrances and lotions, and the like. However, it’s still a very popular custom to purchase or make paper valentines for loved ones. About 190 million valentines are sent each year in the US, half of which are given to a significant other and the other half to children, friends, and other close relatives. Greeting cards for Valentine’s Day is a $1 billion industry and individuals who bought actual gifts for their significant other in addition to paper valentines spent between $108 and $131 from 2010 to 2013. Though the numbers have risen compared to past decades, it’s expected to have plateaued.
And that about wraps up the Valentine’s Day history lesson. I hope everyone had a great Valentine’s Day. I got to spend most of mine with Michael, although since he had to work this evening we’re deferring our main festivities for next weekend when we’ll have 48+ solid hours for mushy romance and to whisper sweet nothings to each other. As usual, we did spend quite a bit of time in Starbucks today. Starbucks was decorated for the occasion and had these double-mustaches stuck up everywhere like paper garland, so Michael pulled one down and stuck to our faces, then we had a quick bite and a cuddle before he went to work. I’m so excited for next weekend!
On that note, it’s time for me to get some work done. Happy Valentine’s Day!