The Truth about St. Valentine’s Day
Author: John V. Esposito, J.D.
February 14, which is currently recognized as Valentine’s Day, was originally designated by the Catholic Church to honor a man by the name of Valentinus. Valentinus was a Christian Roman Catholic priest and a physician, who possessed a power for healing.
Valentinus lived in the Third Century, during the pagan reign of the Roman emperor, Claudius II, who was opposed to Christianity, particularly the concept of Christian marriage. Claudius II believed that a married man would not be willing to leave his wife and family to become a soldier, and he had an empire to run and needed plenty of soldiers. As such, Claudius II issued a decree banning all Christian marriages.
Irrespective of the decree, Valentinus continued to perform secret Christian marriages in defiance of the emperor, was arrested and ordered beheaded. However, while in prison awaiting execution, he continued his ministry advocating for marriage.
On the day that he was to be beheaded, February 14, 270 A.D., while waiting for the executioner to arrive, in the crowd which had assembled to watch his execution, Valentinus observed an admiring young lady, whose sight he had miraculously restored. Legend has it that he may have had “affectionate” feelings for her, even though he was a priest and presumed to be chaste. In any event, legend has it that he wrote a note to the young lady, which he signed, “Love, Your Valentine.” After his death, Valentinus was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church and was thereafter referred to as St. Valentine.
During the time of the Roman Empire, February 15 was the day of the pagan holiday Lupercalia, which was an erotic festival to honor the Roman goddess, Juno Februata. On that day, men and women would gather in the Town Forum, and the women would write “love notes” and put them in a large container.
Then the men would come, each taking out one of the love notes, and they would mate up with the person who had written it and engage in sexual escapades. This was a Roman orgy, with plenty of drinking and sexual eroticism.
Meanwhile, to counter the pagan ritual, the Catholic Church encouraged followers to choose a saint they admired and to live like that saint for the next 12 months. The concept was not well-received and was eventually discontinued.
In the Fifth Century, to encourage romance, as opposed to eroticism, Pope Gelasius designated February 14 as, St. Valentine’s Day. The idea was to express love to one’s “sweetheart.” However, the concept of Valentine’s Day did not become a popular commercial observance until centuries later.
The ritual of sending Valentine cards, as we know them today, began in the 1400s, when Charles, the Duke of Orleans, wrote romantic poems to his wife while he was imprisoned. As time passed, the notion of writing love notes on February14 became popular.
In the 1700s, commercial Valentine cards began in England, and this tradition has continued through the present, growing in popularity, especially in the United States. Valentine’s Day has become a commercial event and enterprise, from cards to candy to flowers, and all the rest.
St. Valentine, for all practical purposes, has been forgotten in the medley of the celebration and observance of Valentine’s Day. This is unfortunate because, after all, Valentine’s Day originated because of St. Valentine’s dedication to the concept of love and marriage.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, 2017.