First things first: No one is totally sure which Valentine is the “real” saint. There were several martyrs who all died around the same time and all claim the day of Feb. 14 as their day of observance.
Here’s what we do know: There was definitely a St. Valentine. And he was probably a priest of some sort in the ancient church in Rome. According to most sources, he performed weddings and helped Christians who were undergoing persecutions under Emperor Claudius II (who was emperor during a long stretch where Christianity was illegal and emperor worship was commanded). He was arrested and imprisoned. According to legend, Claudius II liked Valentine … until Valentine tried to convert him. Then it was off with Valentine’s head (literally).
So what does that have to do with nude, arrow-wielding cherubs and awkward love notes? Well, that’s where the legend part really becomes legend. Apparently, on the eve of his execution, he left a farewell note for his jailer’s daughter and signed it, “From your Valentine.” And, because of his role as marriage-performer, he was made patron saint of happy marriages and romantic love.
Apart from all of the nonsense the holiday has come to summarize, St. Valentine’s story does serve as an example of a radical commitment to Christ.
And it’s a powerful testament to the sacred covenant Christian marriage can be—if Valentine really died for performing weddings, it seems appropriate that the day would, in the end, remember him.