To The Truth about Valentine's Day
Everyone knows that Valentine's Day is a celebration of love. But where did we get the tradition of exchanging cards to mark the day--and who is the saint who inspired the whole thing, anyway? History has too many answers. The Catholic Encyclopedia alone lists three different St. Valentines--all martyred for their faith. Many sources trace the sending of cards & flowers in mid-February to popular traditions that grew up in the Middle Ages that connected human love rituals to the time of year when birds begin to pair off. The "true" story of Valentine's Day, though, is that, like love itself, no one can really explain it.
The only time they call it "St. Valentine's Day" anymore is when they're referring to Al Capone's Chicago massacre on Feb. 14, 1929. In all other contexts these days, it's just plain "Valentine's Day," a secular celebration in which sweethearts of all faiths and none shower each other with candy, cards, expensive dinners, and heart-festooned underwear that can't be worn without embarrassment on any other day of the year. The "St." in St. Valentine's Day that once gave it a uniquely Christian significance has quietly, and perhaps unfortunately, disappeared. How did this happen?
Until fairly recently, St. Valentine actually was a full-fledged Catholic saint, albeit an obscure one, and Feb. 14 was his time-honored feast day. Because St. Valentine was believed to have been an early Christian martyr, the priests saying Mass on that day wore red vestments symbolizing his martyr's blood. The red of the vestments became the color of St. Valentine's Day. And because St. Valentine was thought to have had something vaguely to do with love (no one was really sure what), red hearts, symbols of love, became ubiquitous on St. Valentine's Day, especially after the greeting card industry discovered him during the 1840s and started marketing commercial "valentines"--the lacy greeting cards bearing Cupids and romantic verses that we know so well.
Then, after the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church, embarrassed by the presence of saints on its calendar who might never have existed, booted the already shadowy St. Valentine from his Feb. 14 slot. Into his place, the Church moved saints Cyril and Methodius, two bishop-brothers who had brought Christianity to the Slavs of Eastern Europe during the ninth century. There was never any doubt as to saints Cyril's and Methodius's existence, or of their heroic virtue. The brothers braved years of political and religious persecution as they preached the Gospel. St. Methodius translated the Bible and other Christian works into Slavonic, which is still the liturgical language of many Eastern churches, and St. Cyril is credited with the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet used by Bulgarians, Russians, and Serbs. The priests saying Mass on Feb. 14 switched to white vestments in honor of the brothers' holiness.
As for poor St. Valentine, even among Catholics he quickly disappeared from memory. Catholics celebrate Valentine's Day with gusto, but like everyone else, they rarely attach sacred associations to the mash notes, bonbons, lace brassieres, and heart-emblazoned jockey shorts that they slip to each other on that festive day. This is too bad, because a loss of a sense of the holy, even in trivial things, is a great loss.
It does seem as though there was a real St. Valentine who was martyred during Roman times. In fact, there seem to have been two, perhaps three saints Valentine. Valentine--or Valentinus, derived from the Latin adjective valens, meaning strong and powerful--was a popular man's name during the classical period. The best-known St. Valentine was believed to have been a Roman priest beheaded for his Christian faith toward the end of the third century, under the reign of the Emperor Claudius the Goth. A church dedicated to him (or perhaps one of the other two saints of the same name) was erected in Rome about a century after his presumed death.
Other than that, St. Valentine never acquired much of a cult following, as did the more popular medieval saints. The Mass said in his honor was a generic Mass for martyrs into which the priest inserted the words "blessed Valentine" here and there. Even his traditional saint's legend was short and fairly generic: Valentine refuses to worship the pagan gods, Valentine loses his head. No appalling tortures, no dramatic visions, and nothing remotely associated with romance.
St. Valentine became associated with lovers because his feast day fell on the day before the licentious Roman fertility feast of Lupercalia on Feb. 15. Lupercalia was a sort of Spring Break Week a month early. After an early-morning sacrifice of goats and dogs to Faunus, the god of merry-making, a band of young men, naked except for loincloths made from the skins of the sacrificed animals, ran along the boundaries of Rome, hitting those whom they met, especially women, with strips of the skins. After that, there was quite a bit of drinking, dancing, and what is now called "hooking up." As it did with Saturnalia (now Christmas) and Halloween, the Church did not try to suppress the holiday completely, but Christianized it by discouraging the improprieties and linking it to the saint believed to have been martyred on its eve.
The medieval legend grew that birds selected their mates on Feb. 14. Chaucer set his Parliament of Fowls, celebrating avian romance, on "Seynt Valentynes day." That made it a perfect day for humans to follow suit. In a 15th-century letter, an English matron invited the young man who had been courting her daughter to stop by and formally ask for her hand: "[U]pon Friday is St. Valentine's Day, and every bird chooseth him a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday at night, and so purvey that you may abide here until till Monday, I trust to God that you shall speak to my husband, and I pray that we shall bring the matter to a conclusion."
Amid all this billing and cooing, it was perhaps not surprising that the patron of all this, St. Valentine, would gradually fade so far into the background as to become practically invisible, as he is today. But the link between the martyr and the bonds of the heart is not simply an artificial one devised by the Church in order to tone down Lupercalian whoopee. Short as St. Valentine's legend is, it does contain a small love-story, not of romantic love but of love of a more difficult kind: love of one's enemies. Just before Valentine's beheading, his jailer approaches him and begs him to restore sight to his blind daughter. "I wonder at hearing you say that Christ is light," the jailer says. "Indeed, if He gives light to my daughter who has been blind for a long time, I will do whatever you tell me to do." Valentine's response is a prayer over the girl that cures her blindness--a healing that leads to the conversion of the jailer and his household but does not save the saint's life.
And so St. Valentine did leave behind a legacy of love--of the deepest and most selfless kind. And his example is something that should not be forgotten, even if he himself has been almost forgotten. It is something that today's lovers might ponder amid the wining and dining, the kissing and canoodling, that make his day, Feb. 14, such a special treat