Saint Valentine

Saint Valentine

d. 14 February 312 (?)


Through the ages, many cultures have paused to celebrate love and romance in mid-February.  Few facts are known of St. Valentine, and what we have is largely legend.

We may owe our observance of Valentine’s Day to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, a festival that honoured Juno Februata, the goddess of “feverish” (febris) love. Annually, on the ides of February, love notes or “billets” would be drawn to partner men and women for feasting and sexual game playing.

Early Christians frowned on these lascivious goings-on. In an attempt to curb the erotic festivities, the Christian clergy encouraged celebrants to substitute the names of saints. Then, for the next twelve months, participants were to emulate the ideals represented by the particular saint they’d chosen. Not too surprisingly, this version of Lupercalia did not catch on, so instead this “feast of the flesh” was turned into a “ritual for romance!”

This time, the Church selected a single saint to do battle the pagan goddess Juno — St. Valentine, whose actual name was Valentinus. He was said to have demonstrated courage and valor in helping Christian martyrs being persecuted under Emperor Claudius II in Rome, during a time when giving any kind of aid to Christians was considered a crime.  According to one legend, Valentinus ignored a decree from Emperor Claudius II that forbade all marriages and betrothals. Caught in the act, Valentinus was imprisoned and sentenced to death for secretly conducting several Christian wedding ceremonies.

He was beaten with clubs, stoned and finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate. There is a legend that says while awaiting his execution, he befriended his jailer’s blind daughter whose sight he restored to her.  On the eve of Valentinus’ death, he is said to have written a farewell message to the jailer’s daughter and signed it, “From your Valentine. ”

Despite the efforts of the Church, Valentine’s Day continued to echo Lupercalia in at least one respect – men and women, married or single, would draw lots to select a “valentine.” Once paired, the couple exchanged gifts and sometimes love tokens as well.  The custom of lottery drawings to select Valentines persisted well into the eighteenth century. Gradually, however, a shift took place. No longer did both parties exchange gifts; instead, gift-giving became solely the responsibility of the man!

This new twist helped to finally bring an end to the random drawing of names, since many men were unhappy about giving gifts (sometimes very costly) to women who were not of their choosing. And now that individuals were free to select their own Valentine, the celebration took on a new and much more serious meaning for couples!

The first written valentine is usually attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans. In 1415, Charles fought his lonely confinement by writing romantic verses for his wife. By the sixteenth century written valentines were so common that St. Francis de Sales, fearing for the souls of his English flock, sermonized against them.

Manufactured cards, decorated with Cupids and hearts, appeared near the end of the eighteenth century. A purchased valentine became the most popular way to declare love during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Miniature works of art, the cards were usually hand painted and were often lavishly decorated with laces, silk or satin, flowers (made from the feathers of tropical birds), glass filigrees, gold-leaf or even perfumed sachets!

Saint Valentine’s Day greeting cards are still very popular (only at Christmas are more cards sent), but red roses and chocolate candies now often accompany the card. And the card itself has changed. Recent developments include cards that play romantic music, or let you record a romantic message; there are even “scratch-and-sniff” cards!  And then, of course, there’s email….