Saint Valentine’s Day – The backstory

The story of how Valentine’s Day came to be is one filled with intrigue, oppression, justice and–most importantly–prison love. First and foremost, it’s not just Valentine’s Day … it is Saint Valentine’s Day, a day to remember and reflect upon on the Saint. It is his day after all. Don’t you see the apostrophe?

Second, who was this exalted one? The Catholic church recognizes three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all martyred. Barring the true Saint Valentine finally stepping forward, however, we’ll do what mythology makers have been doing since the beginning of time: blend all of them together and embellish. It makes for a juicier story that way.

Once upon a time, a Christian priest named Valentine lived in Rome during the third century. He was a happy, jolly priest (that part we made up, we really don’t know) but he defied Emporer Claudius II’s decree that all marriage be outlawed. Claudius, you see, believed single men made for better soldiers–nothing to tie them to home. But old Val thought it unfair and unjust. He secretly performed marriage ceremonies for couples, presumably heterosexual, but it was third century Rome so we may be wrong. He may have also been involved in helping Christians escape Roman prisons. Needless to say, he was eventually caught, which brings us to the prison.

While in jail, lovers came to Valentine’s window to be blessed and toss notes to him through his window. He may also have healed the jailer’s daughter who was blind (a necessary miracle needed to become a Catholic saint), or fallen in love with her (something priests to this day still do with children). Upon the eve of his death, he wrote a letter to the jailer’s daughter, which said, “from your Valentine.” It was most likely in Latin, and definitely not written on a SpongeBob SquarePants fold-over.

Some say Valentine was beheaded, others that he died of natural causes in prison(if you can say starvation is natural). Whichever true, his official death happened on February 14, 270 A.D.

Flash forward 226 years to when Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honor the Saint of romance. But the story doesn’t end there. There are always politics invoved when setting aside special days. and the fifth century was no exception. The Catholic church was in a heavy recruitment phase at the time and needed to give those pesky pagans reasons to switch over their gods and fill the pews.

“Hmmm,” thought Gelasius, “What pagan holiday falls in the middle of February? Why the Lupercalia festival of course!”

February 15 was the traditional pagan fertility festival, dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. The ritual for the holiday started with sacrificing goats and cutting bloody strips of hide off (called a febratio, which became February). Then the young men went crazy running through the streets and fields slapping women with the bloody febratios. The ladies liked this (who wouldn’t?) because it was supposed to ensure their fertility in the coming year. Later that day these ladies would put their name in a big urn in the middle of the city and eligible bachelors would draw their romantic partners for the upcoming year. Some historical accounts even called the festival a big “orgy.” Good times. It is believed that the Pope decided it was un-Christian to sanction these romantic pairings and this pagan holiday, hence the creation of a segue holiday, to celebrate romance and monogamy in a happy Christian-like manner.

The tradition of drawing names did carry on for quite some time though. Young men and women in the middle ages drew names to see who their Valentines would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for a period of time after the festival. Today to “wear your heart on your sleeve” means that it is easy for other people to know how you are feeling. If you literally did this today people would file restraining orders against you.

Valentine’s body was said to be “found” by the church in1836 and given to an Irish priest by the Pope. Actually, many of the Saint’s parts have been found and bequeathed across the Catholic empire to give the pious something to reflect upon. Saint Valentine’s body now allegedly resides in Whitefriar Church in Dublin, Ireland. His heart, however, may be in Scotland and other delicate parts may still be in Italy.


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