It’s the last day of Valentines Week!
It is also church day for Christians, and because you can take the girl out of the plaid skirt, but can’t take the Catholic school out of the girl, I’m going to take you on a little trip to Sunday school as my final Valentine from me to you. Valentine’s Day started with and is named for St. Valentine, so here’s a little history of how the holiday came to be.
The actual figure of St. Valentine is a murky one that can be attributed to many possible candidates of folklore and legend. In one version, Valentine of Rome was a third century priest who performed clandestine weddings for lovers during a time when marriage was outlawed by Emperor Claudius II, in hopes that unattached soldiers would provide better service, unencumbered by the distraction of women. Upon discovery of his role as officiant in these illegal weddings, Valentine was executed.
An alternate version of the story has Valentine of Rome as a martyred Christian bishop who was arrested for aiding prisoners in their escape from harsh Roman jails. During his own imprisonment, he supposedly fell in love with the jailer’s daughter whom he had miraculously cured of blindness. At the time of his execution, Valentine supposedly sent a farewell letter to the jailer’s daughter expressing his amorous feelings and signed it “From your Valentine,” a phrase that has survived the ages and is still used in modern greeting cards.
A final variation on the Saint is the story of the Bishop of Interamna, Valentine of Terni, who was consecrated as a martyr in 197 AD after being imprisoned, tortured and beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome for his devotion to Christianity and piety.
It is agreed in legend that the execution of this man, whoever he may have been, took place on February 14th, although scholars argue that this date is likely not the actual execution anniversary, but rather was a date chosen by early Christian leaders to christianize preexisting “pagan” celebrations in the late winter month of February. In around 498 AD, Pope Gelasius declared the 14th the first official feast day of the sainted Christian, most likely to correspond with the enduringly popular Roman festival of Lupercalia.
The fertility festival of Lupercalia, on the days surrounding and including the 14th of February, was celebrated with the sacrifice of a goat for fertility, and a dog for purification. The goat’s hide was then cut into strips, and wielded by half-naked young Roman studs who ran through the streets, gently whipping women as they went. This display alone makes me think that modern culture is missing out on some amazing ancient practices, but maybe it is just because there are so few reasons left for men to be shirtless in public. The touch of the whips was said to provide women with fertility, and as a spring holiday honoring the season and agricultural abundance, it was both a joyful and anticipated celebration. According to tradition, even Marcus Antonius participated in the festival. If you’ve read Shakespeare you will know that this is the festival day when he offers Caesar the king’s crown thrice and is refused.
As a pagan holiday celebrating spring and the start of the season of mating and new life, the holiday became subsumed by the Christian church in the guise of a saint’s feast day, and as a day to celebrate romance. Especially with the lore surrounding Saint Valentine being so romantically tragic, it is no wonder that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was the most popular saints.
The tradition of sending valentines to loved ones, in the tradition of the Saint himself, started in the form of unique letter writing, and was not standardized as a mass produced greeting card exchange until the 1840’s, first initiated in America by Esther A. Howland. Early valentines were made with paper, lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures and were sometimes accompanied by a small token of affection. Inevitably, in 1913, Hallmark Cards got its hands on the holiday, and marketed valentines for the first time.
Today, approximately one billion valentines are sent each year, and most people have forgotten the ancient and Christian origins of the holiday. But, we have not really forgotten the sentiments behind the day and continue to celebrate love and romance in its many guises, which is really the most important value of the holiday.
With that being said, I leave you with my favorite verse from the Bible, rounding out our Sunday school lesson:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
– 1 Corinthians 13:1-7
May you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day tomorrow and celebrate love’s many joys and powers!
A Hopeless Romantic
Click these links to read more about Valentines Day from my sources, History.com and a timeline of Valentine’s day history. Also, to read about St. Valentine’s relics and more about his history, from a Catholic standpoint, click here.