THE HISTORY OF SAINT VALENTINE
THE HISTORY OF SAINT VALENTINE
Legend says that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young, unattached males. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages in secret for young lovers. When Valentine’s defiance was discovered, Claudius ordered him put to death. Another story suggests that Valentine may have been martyred for trying to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. Yet another legend says the saint was the one who sent the very first Valentine. According to the story, he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter while he was in prison and sent her a message of affection, signed “From Your Valentine.”
While much of what is written about the saint is, at best, very murky and unreliable, these stories certainly illustrate his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, romantic figure. So, it’s no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France. But why is his day celebrated in mid-February? There are those that believe it’s to commemorate the anniversary of his death which occurred around 270 AD. However, it’s more likely that the Church decided to make this day the feast of St. Valentine in an effort to Christianize Lupercalia, an ancient pagan festival.
In ancient Rome, February was the official beginning of spring and was considered a time for purification. Houses were ritually cleansed by sweeping them out and then sprinkling salt and a type of wheat called spelt throughout their interiors. Lupercalia, which began at the ides of February – February 15 – was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests sacrificed a goat for fertility, and then, young boys sliced the goat’s hide into strips, dipped them in the sacrificial blood and took to the streets, gently slapping both women and fields of crops with the goat-hide strips. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed being touched with the hides because it was believed the strips would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would then each choose a name out of the urn and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Pope Gelasius declared February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day around 498 A.D. The Roman ‘lottery’ system for romantic pairing was deemed un-Christian and outlawed. Much, much later, during the middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14th was when birds began to mate which added to the idea that the middle of February – Valentine’s Day – should be a day for romance.
In Great Britain, 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 at 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. Here in the United States, we probably began exchanging hand-made Valentines in the early 1700s and then, in the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began to sell the first mass-produced Valentines in America.
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. Christmas is the first.
While there’s no definitive written account of St. Valentine and his life in the third century, his Irish connection is more recent – and documented. In the year 1836, Pope Gregory XVI sent a gift to the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street, Dublin, in recognition of the work of the church’s former prior, Father John Spratt, who was widely recognized as a very holy man. The gift was a relic of a Christian martyr: a small gold-bound casket containing the earthly remains of St. Valentine. The relic had been exhumed from the cemetery of St. Hyppolytus on the Tiburtine Way in Rome, placed in a golden casket, and brought to Dublin, where it was enshrined in the little church with great ceremony. This year, on February 14th, as it has in every year since, the casket containing the Saint’s mortal remains will be carried in solemn procession to the high altar of the Carmelite Church for a special Mass dedicated to young people and those in love. If you’re lucky enough to be there, this little known Dublin church also sells Valentine’s Day cards. Truly, it can be said – these are the genuine article!
For those wishing to visit St. Valentine’s Shrine in Dublin, the church is located between Aungier Street and Wexford Street, just a few minutes’ walk west of St Stephen’s Green. Besides the cards, one can also purchase various souvenirs bearing the saint’s image.