1. Who was “Valentine”?
a. Nobody knows for sure (next to no accurate information remains about him), but Valentine is thought to be Valentinus, a third century Italian priest.
b. Hagiographies (biographies of someone that exclusively focus on the good) disagree on whether he was from Rome or Terni (both in Italy), but I suspect that they were the same person, since they apparently died on the same day and are buried in the same place according to the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the earliest sources we have of their record.
c. Regardless of which one he was, he apparently died on Feb. 14, 269.
d. The Martyrologium Romanum (An early list of Christian Martyrs) records that on February 14th “At Rome, on the Flaminian road, in the time of the emperor Claudius, the birthday of blessed Valentine, priest and martyr, who after having cured and instructed many persons, was beaten with clubs and beheaded”. We don’t know why he was killed, which leads us to the next point…
d. There’s a popular myth that he emperor Claudius II (Claudius Gothicus) had an army that was forced into service and thus was homesick for their families, so Claudius forbade marriage in Rome. Valentinus was imprisoned for performing “underground” marriages, fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and wrote her a note on the day of his death signed “from your Valentine”.
Truth is, I haven’t been able to establish any of these points from any remotely reliable historical documentation…and from what I have found, there’s no record of persecution of the church by Claudius II as a majority of his very short reign was spend fighting the Goths, far away from Rome. Also, the story of Valentine comes from Catholic saint hagiographies from far later in history; they’re about as reliable as the Weekly World News.
2. What about Valentine’s day?
a. The Feast of Saint Valentine is said to have started in 496 AD when it was a memorial established by Pope Gelasius 1 in Decretum Gelasianum (Decree of Gelasius)…except that the Decretum Gelasianum makes no mention of it and only mentions “Valentinus the Manichaean”, a second century heretic whose followers were known as the Valentinians and were the main object of attack in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies.
In other unrelated news, Wikipedia is often highly unreliable.
b. More likely, it was an effort to “Christianize” the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia, commemorating how the founders of Rome (Romulus and Remus) were cared for by a she-wolf (lupa). Here’s a description of the festival (Luperci = priests of Lupercus…fyi):
The festival was held every year, on the 15th of February,b in the Lupercal, where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nurtured by the she-wolf; the place contained an altar and a grove sacred to the god Lupercus (Aurel. Vict. de Orig. Gent. Rom. 22; Ovid. Fast. II.267). Here the Luperci assembled on the day of the Lupercalia, and sacrificed to the god goats and young dogs, which animals are remarkable for their strong sexual instinct, and thus were appropriate sacrifices to the god of fertility (Plut. Rom. 21; Servius ad Aen. VIII.343).c Two youths of noble birth were then led to the Luperci, and one of the latter touched their foreheads with a sword dipped in the blood of the victims; other Luperci immediately after wiped off the bloody spots with wool dipped in milk. Hereupon the two youths were obliged to break out into a shout of laughter. This ceremony was probably a symbolical purification of the shepherds. After the sacrifice was over, the Luperci partook of a meal, at which they were plentifully supplied with wine (Val. Max. II.2.9). They then cut the skins of the goats which they had sacrificed, into pieces; with some of which they covered parts of their body in imitation of the god Lupercus, who was represented half naked and half covered with goat-skin. The other pieces of the skins they cut into thongs, and holding them in their hands they ran through the streets of the city, touching or striking with them all persons whom they met in their way, and especially women, who even used to come forward voluntarily for the purpose, since they believed that this ceremony rendered them fruitful, and procured them an easy delivery in childbearing. (original source)
I cannot be sure of this, but it’s definitely fitting with what I know of church history and is not likely that much of a stretch. I mean, it sounds like how churches are still constantly cleaning up youth group games…I haven’t whipped a young lady with bloody strips of goat hide, but girls in my youth group have been slapped with a cow tongue, had a dead chicken tossed at them and sat down on a toilet (at a camp) only to get the cold snout of a severed pigs head where the sun don’t shine.
*fondly reminisces playful youth group shenanigans with severed animal body parts*
c. Of what I can find, the earliest connection of romance with Feb. 14th is in 1382 where Chaucer wrote his poem Parlement of Foules and penned the words:
For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.
It was thought that Feb. 14th marked the beginning of many birds’ mating season, and that romantic connection may be the true source of the connection between romance and Valentines’ day.
So the moral of the story is this:
Most of the holidays we celebrate these days started off as something crazy.
Also, forget the history and let Valentine’s Day be what you make it. Seize the day as an excuse to love your spouse with reckless abandon, and don’t forget to remember all the little known martyrs of the past who helped establish Christianity in the west. Those fellows were definitely not crazy, and the fact that you likely go to church without state-sponsored persecution owes something to their faithfulness in the past; faithfulness to not rebel against their nations, faithfulness to preserve the faith that they had received, and faithfulness to proclaim Christ even to those who wielded the blades that ended their lives.
Happy Valentines day.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “talk about starting off crazy” Unger