Valentine’s Day, it’s history and the story of its patron saint–is shrouded in mystery.
We know that February is celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine’s Day contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.
But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?
The Catholic Church
The Catholic church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus.
One legend speaks that Valentine was a priest during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers. Then, Valentine’s actions were discovered, and Claudius had him put to death.
From your Valentine,
Other lore tells us that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and–most importantly–romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Today, some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial–which probably occurred around A.D. 270. Another claim is that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia.
Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
The Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets. They would start gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Amazingly, far from being fearful, the Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides. It was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year.