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Love, Romance…and God?! St. Valentine’s Day revealed

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Feb. 13, 2012

Love letters, boxed candies, flowers and hearts going pitter-patter—the 14th of February glitters as many men and women celebrate St. Valentine’s Day.  While there is a popular tradition of love surrounding this holiday, it is worth looking at how this saint’s feast day gave rise to such widespread romance.

First, we are not absolutely positive how many Valentine’s there actually were—we know of two, for sure: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Interamna.  Both men were priests (actually, Valentine of Interamna was a bishop) and both were ultimately martyrs.  Both were executed around the year 269 AD; and, of course, their deaths occurred on the date of their feast, February 14th.

The legends trying to explain the connection between these saints and the secular traditions of the day are varied, and, indeed, the truth likely hovers somewhere between myth and pure fact.  It seems that simply dying for the love of God is would rival any Hallmark card or bouquet, but still, this seems insufficient.  The connection must be deeper.    

One explanation involves the Emperor Claudius II, whom it is believed martyred both St. Valentines.  He had issued a decree that young Roman men were to remain unmarried and, therefore, single.  Emperor Claudius II waged numerous campaigns to reunify the Roman Empire and required a large standing and mobile army.  It was his belief that unmarried and uncommitted young men made better soldiers; hence, the decree.  However, St. Valentine, faithful to his office as priest, continued to counsel couples and perform marriages.  Once this violation was discovered, St. Valentine was arrested, jailed and executed.  Perhaps then, the cult of love developed around the saint’s steadfast dedication to the sacrament of marriage.

However, there is another legend that St. Valentine once jailed was interviewed by the Emperor Claudius II, who found him likeable.  Therefore, the Emperor attempted to convert the prisoner to becoming a pagan.  Not only were his attempts unsuccessful, but they were countered by St. Valentine, who tried to convert the Emperor to Christianity.  This act of evangelism was not only unsuccessful, but earned the saint his crown of martyrdom, as he was scheduled for execution.  During his stay in prison it is said that he befriended the daughter of the jailor, who was a blind and pitiful girl.  Before his death, it is attested that St. Valentine cured the girl of her blindness.  Further, it is believed that St. Valentine left behind a final letter to his newest friend, the jailor’s daughter, which pronounced the love of Christ and was, of course, signed, “From your Valentine.”

Too, like many Christian holidays and feast days, there is an attempt to celebrate something holy during a popular pagan holiday.  It is suggested that St. Valentine’s Day is an attempt to “baptize” a pagan tradition honoring Februata Juno, a goddess of fertility and sexuality.  A supposed festival was held in her honor on February 15, at which time maidens’ names were put in a box, and young men drew a name, which lead to lewd and lustful acts.  To counter the tradition, it is alleged that “zealous pastors substituted the names of saints” for the names of young ladies.  Christians would draw the name of a saint, whom they would be devoted to, and in turn, receive patronage.  This explanation is highly suspect.

The most feasible explanation for the connection of St. Valentine’s Day with love and romance derives not from church tradition, but from an allusion in literature.  Geoffery Chaucer in 1382 wrote a poem that is the first recorded connection between coupling and St. Valentine’s Day.  In the poem he chooses the feast day as the time when monogamous birds pair:

        “For this was on St. Valentine’s day
        When every bird cometh there to choose a mate.”

Further, the custom of “choosing a Valentine,” is recorded in 1477 in letters involving the Drew Family.  A mother writes to a suitor for her daughter, suggesting the man visit over the St. Valentine’s feast day repeating the Chaucer allusion, “[when] every bird chooseth him a mate…”  Apparently the man did visit (and commit) because the daughter addressed two letters to him in the following month, referring to him as her “beloved Valentine” and “good, true and loving Valentine.”

Indeed, whatever legend is most accurate, it is imperative that the love of God shared by each of the Ss. Valentine must overshadow the day.  Purity of love, true devotion, and wholesome romance begins with charity—the love of God.  Whether it is St. Valentine ministering to a poor girl that was blind, St. Valentine marrying young men and women despite being forbidden, or St. Valentine ushering in a springtime of coupling, they act upon that which is ordained by God.  We love our neighbors best when we love God most.  It is no different with those we hold most romantically dear.  This St. Valentine’s Day, certainly remember to give your loved one a gift, but also remember to say a prayer to Ss. Valentine, as well as God, thanking Him for His Love, which gives rise to the love shared between you and your Valentine.