Valentine’s Day is less than a week away. On this day we celebrate love, romance and the beheading of St. Valentinus. Wait a minute, what? Yeah, that’s right. Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14th every year to commemorate the death of a 3rd century Saint who was martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ. It’s hard to believe that a day meant to remember the faith of a courageous man could be transformed into the holiday for lovers, but as we dig deeper into the story, there are a few connections.
Who Was Valentine?
The true story of St. Valentinus is hard to come by. As it turns out, Valentine was a popular name in centuries past. The name comes from the Latin Valens, meaning strong and powerful. In all, there are around a dozen St. Valentines officially recognized on the Roman Catholic roster. There was even a pope named Valentine who served for a brief period of time in the 9th century. However, it is most likely that the St. Valentinus we celebrate on this day was a Roman priest who lived and died in the 3rd century.
While many legends about St. Valentine have circulated over the years, there are a few notable stories that ring true. He served as a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II who persecuted the Christian church bitterly. Claudius II declared an edict at that time prohibiting the marriage of young people. This was based on his opinion that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers who were more cautious and fearful of losing their lives and leaving their families behind. The Christian faith promoted marriage as a gift from God and Valentinus refused to submit to this edict. He encouraged young couples to marry and helped facilitate this by performing secret marriage ceremonies. Eventually, he was caught and imprisoned for violating this edict.
While in prison, Valentine shared Jesus with one of the justices assigned to his case. This judge, Asterius, had a daughter who was blind. He challenged Valentinus to pray for her to be healed and validate his claims that Jesus was God. Valentinus laid his hands on her, prayed for her sight to be restored and she was healed! Asterius became a believer in Jesus Christ as a result of this.
It is said that Valentinus sought to convince the Emperor Claudius II himself that Jesus Christ was God. As a result of his boldness, the Emperor was enraged and sentenced him to be executed. In the year 269 AD, Valentinus was sentenced to a three part execution of beating, stoning, and decapitation.
“Be my Valentine”
One of the most popular traditions celebrated on Valentine’s Day is the giving of Valentine cards. Indeed, as a nation we will spend close to 1.5 billion dollars just on cards this Valentines Day. This is perhaps the most closely linked modern day tradition that can find its’ origins in St. Valentines story. As the story goes, on the day he was to be executed, Valentine’s last words were written down on a letter addressed to the daughter of Asterius who had been healed of blindness. He signed the letter, “from your Valentine.” Apparently, this expression has inspired the millions of hopeless romantics today who sign off their love notes with his name.
The Making of a Holiday
Around 498 CE, Pope Gelasius chose February 14th, the day of Valentine’s martyrdom, to commemorate his life. As fate would have it, Valentine’s Day fell the day before the Roman fertility feast Lupercalia, a drunken, sex-crazed, orgy festival (think Mardi Gras). During the 5th century, all public performance of pagan rites had been outlawed. However, festivals like these don’t die easily. The activities continued while the official calendar day recognized St. Valentine. Thus the day of the festival and St. Valentine’s martyrdom came to be intertwined.
We have to fast forward to the 14th century before we see further development of the modern day holiday. In his work “Parliament of Foules,” the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer linked the tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s day (an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention). His poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,” he may have invented the holiday we know today.