The Story of St. Valentine
By Elizabeth Hyndman
February 11, 2010
Feb. 14 is here. To me, this means one thing: the return of candy hearts. I love those things—candy and conversation, all in one. Whether you’re a fan of edible, culturally relevant ("fax me") sentiments or not, Feb. 14 is sure to bombard you with plenty of red, pink, hearts and lace. Valentine's Day is upon us. Some bitter person somewhere began calling it Singles Awareness Day and blaming Hallmark for the fact that love is forced upon us every February.
And, well, they are wrong.
Valentine’s Day came about because of a saint—one named Valentine. Like a lot of saints from way back, details on Val’s life are a little murky. In fact, there have actually been three different Valentines reported to have existed. But a lot of people think it was probably the same guy. Or just a popular name. The point is, there was most likely only one Saint Valentine.The story of Valentine's life is equally confusing. Different accounts have different details, but a lot of it's the same. Valentine was a physician and a priest (or just a physician … or just a priest. Like I said, different stories) living in the latter part of the third century. At the time, it was against the law for young couples to marry, because Claudius II wanted the men to be constantly ready for battle and not worried about a family back home. Valentine went against orders and secretly provided marriage ceremonies for young lovers. He was put into prison, where he befriended a jailer. The jailer had a daughter who was blind and he asked Valentine to help. Valentine, through a miracle or medicine (depending on the storyteller), was able to restore the sight of the jailer's daughter. In most accounts, the jailer was converted to Christianity through Valentine's actions. Valentine was executed on Feb. 14 for his faith, but before he died, he sent a note to the jailer's daughter and signed it, "From Your Valentine."
His death day and his association with lovers and notes were convenient for the Christians in Rome, who were probably already looking for a way to absorb the feast of Lupercalia into Christian culture. Lupercalia took place on Feb. 15. During Lupercalia, the young, single women would write their names on slips of paper, which were then placed in an urn. The young, single men would then each draw a name, and court that woman (at least until they could get a new name next year). I suppose this was an early prototype for dating websites. Another fun (and by “fun,” I mean “slightly disturbing”) activity during Lupercalia was the act of “februatio.” Februatio, which means “to purify,” was a lashing of the young women in the town, by the young noblemen. Apparently, being hit with some sort of leather whip, called a “februa,” increased a girl’s chances of child-bearing. Lupercalia wasn’t the only romantic tie to Feb. 14. In Europe, people believed birds found their mates around that time each year. Chaucer took note of it, citing Feb. 14 as the specific date in one of his writings.
So, yes, Valentine’s Day really is about love, finding love and sending cards. But we can’t blame Hallmark. They’re only capitalizing on an incredible money-making opportunity.
But what if, instead of blaming card stores, dwelling in the thought of loneliness or succumbing to materialism, we celebrated the origins of the holiday this year? Valentine’s Day began because one man showed Christ’s love—not with delicious candy hearts, red roses or a winged baby, but with his actions—despite opposition. Maybe this Feb. 14, we could try to do the same.