It is ironic that one of the more popular holidays in America is named for a saint about whom very little is known -- who, in fact, is of questionable historical provenance. In fact, the feast day of St. Valentine is no longer recognized in the current liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. It was removed after the calendar was revised in 1969 by Pope Paul VI.
At that time, many beloved saints lost their places in the calendar because not enough information existed to document their lives and sainthood (e.g., St. Christopher). St. Valentine was a casualty of that revision and lost his standing in the official Catholic canon.
The confusion about St. Valentine begins with reports that there may have been two Valentines who lived and died at the same time -- one was a priest in Rome and the other was a bishop in Terne, 60 miles outside of the imperial capital (but again, that information is inconclusive).
Some scholars believe that there was only one Valentine -- that first he was a priest who then became a bishop. And that theory does make sense, since it was also reported that both Valentines were beheaded. (No box of chocolates for either of them...)
In pagan Rome, Feb. 15 was the feast of the Lupercalia in honor of the pastoral god Lupercus. The Romans performed a ritual meant to ward off wolves, in which men wore strips of animal hide, dancing and cavorting; in mixed company, it evolved into a fertility ritual. Wolves stayed away and love blossomed!
The night before the feast, young people used to declare their love for one another or propose marriage. They also used to pledge their companionship and affection to a prospective spouse for the next 12 months, with a view toward marriage. It is this custom that provides the original meaning of being someone's "Valentine."
And where does love enter Valentine's story? Well, all the stories of saints and martyrs have strong elements that describe their great love for God and, in the case of the martyrs, their willingness to sacrifice their lives for this love and commitment. In the story of St. Valentine, he both lived and died for love.
So, tradition holds that Valentine was a priest in A.D. 269 under the rule of Emperor Claudius II, who is reputed to have banned marriage because he believed that single men made better soldiers. But love finds a way, and those who wanted to marry found an ally in the priest Valentine, who agreed to perform the sacrament in secret. When Claudius discovered this treason, he imprisoned Valentine.
One legend says that young children passed him notes through the prison bars, which could have been the beginning of the custom of sending love notes on Valentine's Day.
As noted earlier, the priest was eventually beheaded and then named a martyr by the Church because he gave up his life to perform the sacrament of marriage: for love of love and love of God.
Medieval authors told stories about St. Valentine as a matchmaker for devout Christian couples. According to one tale, the custom of sharing cards on Valentine's Day echoes a letter that Valentine wrote to his jailer's daughter, whom he had miraculously cured of blindness, shortly before his execution by Roman authorities. It is said that he signed the note, "Your Valentine."
The great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived in the 14th century and is famous for his "Canterbury Tales," is credited with calling Feb. 14 "Valentine's Day," the day of love, in his poem "The Parliament of Fowls":
For this was on St. Valentine's Day
when every fowl cometh there to
choose his mate.
He named the day a symbol of spring love, with birds billing and cooing.
Shakespeare also refers to Valentine's Day in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and in "Hamlet":
Good morrow! 'Tis St. Valentine's Day
all in the morning betime,
and I a maid at yon window,
to be your Valentine!
Here Shakespeare is referring to an English and Italian custom in which single women sat at their windows on Valentine's Day, believing that the first man they saw would be their true love.
The historical Valentine, if he in fact existed, presumably died not knowing that his name would be associated with this happy and intense emotion for millennia to come.
But he knew -- and we know -- that love is worth celebrating; it is probably the best thing to celebrate. The greeting card, flower and candy industries love, love, love St. Valentine (their patron saint for all intents and purposes), for he provides substantial cash flow in the first quarter of the year, the first major spending holiday after the season of Christmas and before, God help us, Presidents' Day.
So, teddies (of both the cuddly bear and silken lingerie varieties) aside, it is comforting to know that there is more than a commercial basis for the rampant expressions of love on this day and that, as always -- and as if there was any doubt -- Charlie Brown was right.
Happy Valentine's Day, my dearest.