Ready for Valentine’s Day? Want to know the reason for all the love, displayed in overly tacky decor and so much red everywhere it looks like cherubs were sacrificed in all the major stores. But what does it mean to celebrate love on this day? The story goes that Valentine was a Christian priest who performed marriages for young people when it was deemed illegal by the Roman Emperor (usually Claudius, for obvious reasons). When he was found out, he was incarcerated and then grotesquely killed. His last words were written in a letter to one of his followers, signed “from your Valentine.”
First off, let’s get one thing clear for all of us non-Catholic people; this is the feast day of the Valentines. Feast days of saints often commemorate the day the saints – or groups of martyrs – died. In the older Christian religions, the day someone died is more important than when they lived. I can totally get behind this idea. Everyone is born, but not everyone dies for a belief. Huh, that sounded almost profound.
Anyway, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there are actually three St. Valentine’s. That’s right, three. Notice in the paragraph above that I called it the feast of the Valentines, not feast of Valentine’s. Gotta love grammar. The records of these saints is found in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, which is a list of martyrs for the Catholic church that has been kept since the late 500’s AD. That’s right, the Catholic Church doesn’t do anything in half measures. Along with the names of martyrs is a blurb or two about why the person is listed as a martyr. For many saints, these small blurbs is all we actually know about them, sad as that may seem.
The oldest St. Valentine is Valentine of Terni, martyred in 197 AD. He was a bishop who was martyred on the Via Flaminia during the reign of Emperor Aurelian. His relics (I was unable during my short research to find out exactly what body parts these relics are, and I am not sure I want to know) are located at the Basilica in Terni, and many people spend Valentine’s Day there. Another saint for the day is Valentine of Rome, another priest who died on the Via Flaminia in 269 AD. His relics are spread between a church in Ireland and another in Rome. The odd similarities of these two priests lead many to think they are actually the same guy. If that is the case, I am more interested in what body parts are located in each of the three churches. On second thought, the spread makes it a little more creepy. The third saint has even less information. He is merely listed as a Valentine under February 14 in the martyr catalog, who was killed in a group of martyrs in Africa.
Not seeing any romance yet? Neither did I, so I went fact finding on the internet. Many people talk about a Roman Valentine (the emperor who terrorized him varies) but one thing becomes clear as I went through page after page of “information.” The romantification of St. Valentine’s Day occurred sometime in the late 5th Century, well after all the martyred Valentines died. Pope Gelasius (yes, that is an actual name) made Valentine the patron saint of lovers and engaged couples; but also epilepsy, bee-keepers, plague, greetings, travelers and young people. Now that he was an actual saint, he was given his own representations: birds and roses, an epileptic child, a rooster, a beheaded bishop, and a priest holding a sun.
As with many other Christian holidays, this still quasi-romantic holiday occurred strangely one day before another, more popular, holiday – Lupernalia. Named for the wolves that helped “found” Rome (as you Latin-lovers already know), this is one raunchy holiday. Priests of wolf cults would scatter sacrificial animal blood in the streets to make them fertile. Noblemen and magistrates would run around these streets of Rome naked, and hit people with shaggy thongs (I was too afraid to find out what a shaggy thong was). Women would purposefully stand in their way to get hit (and perhaps get a glimpse of their “nobility”). When struck, it was said that they would become hyper-fertile, even if they were barren. I can only imagine how often this theory was tested.
There were other fertility festivals in the Greco-Roman world in February, but this one was the biggest (I wonder why, considering the frigidity of February, you would think the holiday would be smaller). Gelasius decided to nix that gross stuff and bring the people of Rome closer to normal with their carnal lusts. And viola, Valentine’s Day was created, a day of love and sacrifice, instead of love blood and sex.
During the Middle Ages, romance seeped its way into this quasi-carnal day. Chaucer, in 1382, put Valentine into his Parliament of Foules to commemorate the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard to Anne of Bohemia. They were both 15 when they were married eight months later, so… true love, right? While this was not a true link to February 14th, it was considered such, and became a romantic line… for some reason. Really read it, I don’t see romance, just a rhyming couplet. A short, medieval while later, the “High Court of Love” was created by princess Isabel of Bavaria to celebrate their St. Valentine in early January. The court dealt with all aspects of love: marriage, betrayal, the beating of women… you know, love. The idea was based on the works of Chaucer, or possibly his grandson, but a Chaucer nonetheless. Love continues to grow…
Later that same century, the oldest surviving Valentine poem is found, written by Charles, Duke of Orleans. He wrote, in Latin: Je suis desja d’amour tanné Ma tres doulce Valentinée (I am already sick of love, my sweet Valentine). Finally, I see what I would call a romantic poem, but should be taken this with a grain of salt, because his mother’s name is Valentina. Of course, the romance may have been a last words kind of thing, seeing as he was jailed in the Tower of London following the famous Battle of Agincourt. By the 1600s, even Shakespeare has mentioned Valentine, meaning that the idea of Valentine – as a model of some sort of love – has become cemented in the common man. Shakespeare rarely wrote words that could not be grasped by the bread and butter of his profession: the peanut gallery (aka, the poor masses who adored him). When reading the text linked above, you will note that Valentine was used ruefully. Hamlet was sick of love and hate Ophelia, in his weird way. But this still hinted at Valentine being at least a scourge of love, if not the cherub we all see him as now.
After the doors were opened, more famous poets utilized Valentine as the herald of love: John Donne, Edmund Spencer, and English nursery rhymes (nothing says romance like a nursery rhyme, right?). You can look up these links, my fingers are starting to get tired. These poems were put onto cards adorned with pretty and sometimes inexplicable pictures and sent as marriage proposals by the 1800s, and the true Valentine’s Day card came into being. After that, the gift giving bonanza is pretty self-explanatory, because we as humans are never satisfied with something simple when complex is more fun.
Choose to believe the sainthood of Valentine or not, this time of year is special… and horny. I think a priest willing to go against a Caesar to marry young people, to infuse them with compassion and keep them away from the stings of multiple STD’s is more than enough to make him a saint in my book. This is why, for me at least, St. Valentine’s Day is not a day to give people sweets and dead flowers and cards. It is a day to profess to someone close to you what you are willing to do for them. Three years ago, on St. Valentine’s Day, my now-husband, Brant, wrote me a letter professing that he wanted to marry me. He put down in that paper the reasons he thought I was worth giving up bachelorhood for. He had weighed the pros (too many to list here) and cons (waaay too many to list here) of linking his life to mine, and somehow came out with more good things than bad.
And each Valentine’s after that we have written to each other why we love each other. That may or may not last throughout all the Valentine’s we spend together, because it may start to sound monotonous. But, in the beginning, it was the spirit of St. Valentine that had us profess that, despite the suffering that we knew was going to happen, we wanted to be together. While we wouldn’t run the risk of stoning and decapitation, Brant ran the risk of: me breaking all kinds of random objects (done that), me being forgetful and not doing important things until the last minute (done that), me being emotional for no reason, and other things that he didn’t tell me. And I came into this marriage knowing that he breaks into song in the car with abandon (so cute!), he doesn’t have opinions on what to make for dinner (ever), and other things that I wouldn’t want to air in public (but he’s cute in all of them). Despite all this, I am still really happy and thankful that Brant and I got married. So, thank you, St. Valentine. And Happy Valentine’s Day.