As Americans flood Hallmark and grocery stores and 7-Elevens everywhere for chocolates, pink paper hearts, and roses for their beloveds, some will wonder who this Valentine guy was, and what the connection is between him and Cupid.
The connection is rather tenuous, it turns out.
St. Valentine’s Day has been around for ages. Legend has it that the actual saint named Valentine was a Roman martyr for the Christian faith. His feast day on the Western liturgical calendar is February 14 because that is the day he is said to have been beaten with clubs and beheaded. In any case, that was the day set aside for him in A.D. 496 by Pope Gelasius I. This pope was the same one who banned Lupercalia, a Roman pagan fertility festival lasting February 13-15, during which observers of the festival ritual would run naked through the streets to counter sterility. Most contemporary scholars reject any direct connection between the banishing of Lupercalia and the instituting of the feast of St. Valentine’s Day by the pope.
So why the violent death? Some say Valentine failed to renounce his Christian faith to Emperor Claudius II in A.D. 269, when it was still a big no-no to be a Christian (Christianity wasn’t tolerated by the Roman Emperor until Constantine early in the fourth century). Others say on the night before his execution, he wrote a letter to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had healed of blindness, signing his note, “From your Valentine.”
There is no substantial evidence that Valentine had anything remarkable to do with romance and lovers, however, until the time of Chaucer. Chaucer is widely argued to be the one who made Valentine a man of fame and romance in his “The Parliament of Fowls” (a modern translation of which is available here). It’s in this poem, written in the fourteenth century, that we get talk of lovers, birds, flowers, and finding the perfect mate on Valentine’s Day. The earliest known reference to calling one’s beloved “Valentine” is in the fifteenth century letters of Margery Brews to her future husband, John Paston III. The rest is history!
With the founding of the Hallmark Cards company was founded in Missouri in 1910, the feastday of St. Valentine was destined (or doomed), among other holidays, to become a highly ritualized day in the United States and other Western cultures. Now Valentine’s Day, rather than serving as a memorial to a martyred saint, has become a feast of love. Adult lovers celebrate it with everything from jewelry to store-bought Valentine’s cards to sweet treats to hand-written poetry to lace and lingerie to sex. Meanwhile, the ritual of sharing some sentiment of “love” is taught early to children, who create Valentine’s card boxes as art projects and exchange miniature Valentine’s cards with all of their classmates. Whatever its actual origins, and regardless of its actual connection to the man named Valentine, the Western rituals of Valentine’s Day won’t be going away anytime soon.
From my perspective as a liturgist, the lesson of St. Valentine is this: don’t underestimate the power of a retold story to change a community’s ritual, even if the community is as large as the Western world. If the likes of Chaucer decided your life were worthy of a retelling centuries after your death, what rituals might spring up around you?
Courtesy of “Presbyterian Voices for Justice” Facebook page