The Strange History of St. Valentine’s Day

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. The pressure is on. Forget to buy a gift, and you might be in the doghouse. Forget to send a card, and you’ll be lucky to get the doghouse key.

I almost always remember to buy my wife a card, but even if I didn’t, she would still love me. If giving cards and gifts is a “love language,” as the psychologist Gary Chapman maintains, neither my wife nor I are fluent in it. Some years ago, during a busy week before Valentine’s Day, we were together in a store. She picked out a card for me and I picked out one for her, showed each other the cards, probably kissed (I don’t remember), then returned the cards to their respective shelves. Hallmark hates us, but we love each other.

February 14th has not always been the way it is now. It used to be worse. During the Roman festival of Lupercalia, drunk, naked men hit women with the skins of recently sacrificed animals in a raucous fertility ritual. The women were then paired with the men who beat them, and the couple’s fertility was put to the test.

What did St. Valentine have to do with this? Absolutely nothing. Valentine was, historians believe, a Christian priest who lived near Rome during the time of Emperor Claudius II, a sworn enemy of the faith. In fact, there were two Christian priests named Valentine, living around Rome at the same time, and Claudius had them both put to death on February 14, during Lupercalia, though not in the same year.

It is possible the stories of the two Valentines, executed under Claudius, have been conflated, and that St. Valentine is really an amalgam of both. According to one tradition, Valentine had won the emperor’s admiration, but lost it – and his life – by trying to convert Claudius to the faith. The emperor was so outraged by Valentine’s unwanted evangelism, he ordered a three-part execution: beating, stoning, and beheading.

Another version attributes Claudius’s ire to the fact that Valentine was secretly marrying Christian couples, against the edict of the Emperor. Since newly married men were excused for a time from serving in the wars, Valentine was accused of hindering the war effort.

It is often said that just before Valentine was led away to execution, he wrote a note to the daughter of his jailer, whose vision was restored after he prayed for her. According to legend, he signed his encouraging note, “from your Valentine.” Hence the tradition of sending Valentine cards.

Whether or not our current traditions can be traced back to a third century saint is debatable, but there is little doubt they can be traced back to medieval and Renaissance poets. It was during the age (one might almost say, the “cult”) of courtly love that Valentine became an A-lister among the saints. When Geoffrey Chaucer linked the saint to romantic love, Valentine’s popularity soared. Shakespeare added to his fame in Hamlet, with a song about a girl who lost her virginity on Valentine’s Day.

Because of a line in Chaucer’s poem “Parlement of Foules” lovers in the royal court began sending each other handmade paper cards on Valentine’s Day. In eighteenth century England, the practice of sending cards signed, “from your Valentine,” expanded well beyond the court. But it wasn’t until 1913, when Hallmark saw the commercial opportunity the holiday afforded, that Valentine’s Day became a hotbed not of love but of profit. Analysts estimate that Americans alone spent over 18 billion dollars on Valentine’s Day last year.

What would Valentine, the third century Christian martyr (or martyrs, as the case may be), make of all this? Would he laugh hilariously at the absurdity of men giving their wives lingerie in his name, or would he appreciate the expressions of affection that spouses share, or would he cry over the vast expenditure of resources without a corresponding increase in genuine love and affection?

Perhaps he would do all three. Or maybe he would express his feelings by quoting an earlier saint whose wisdom he revered, St. Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/10/2018

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4 Responses to The Strange History of St. Valentine’s Day

  1. ccole48 says:

    I enjoyed this very much. Thank you!

  2. salooper57 says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for taking the time to share the encouragement!

  3. Hi Shayne,

    I used to be an operator for Western Union, and I would type telegrams as customers dictated them to me. An elderly female coworker always chose Valentine’s Day as a vacation day because she just couldn’t tolerate the telegrams people would send on that occasion. I don’t have any recollection of those indiscrete messages, but I’ve never forgotten my coworker. The fact that she always scheduled February 14 as a vacation day every year showed both foresight and a strong distaste for semi-public displays of affection!

  4. salooper57 says:

    That’s a great story, Ron. I can think of an alternate explanation though: Valentine’s Day was the busiest day at Western Union, and the best day to be absent.
    Shayne

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