Last year (2016), Americans spent just below $20 million to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It is a day to celebrate love and relationships, which apparently requires brand-name cards, chocolates, gifts, and expensive dinners. But where did these traditions come from, why are they linked to a Christian saint, and how can we benefit from knowing any of this?
Who Was St. Valentine?
Unfortunately, very little is known about the real life of Valentine. What we do know is Emperor Claudius II beheaded two Christian priests, both named Valentine (one of them in in 270). Details of these men’s lives remain murky, but it seems historically reliable to say both of these men lived (and it’s not just one man named Valentine and there are different accounts of his death) and they were both decapitated because of their resistance against the Emperor’s restrictions against Christianity.
It is historically proven that Christians endured extreme persecution at the hands of Roman Emperors in the early years of the Church and Valentine was not unique in his refusal to deny Christ and bow to the Empire. Accordingly, it is very possible that the myths are true about Valentine officiating marriages for Christians. Emperor Claudius II banned weddings because he believed it would be easier to recruit young men for military service if they were not able to wed. Valentine, however, refused to follow this ban and continued to give aid to fellow Christians who were suffering, and continued to evangelize and seek new converts to Christianity. He was then arrested and eventually executed.
There are legends about specific marriages and miracles he performed, but their records are from centuries after Valentine’s death (many Roman historical records were destroyed in the 6th century when Rome was sacked). There is also an account where Valentine restored the sight of a jailer’s daughter and sent her a note before his execution and signed it, “your Valentine.” It’s a sweet story, but we have shaky historical grounds for its reliability.
How Valentine Got His Own Day
NPR has an interesting article (The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day) which gives more details about the Roman festival Lupercalia, but it’s enough to say it was celebrated yearly from February 13-15th and was a time marked for debauchery and lust. Since legends mark Valentine as the patron saint of the engaged and the young, and since he was martyred on February 14th, the inevitable link took place and “redeemed” the pagan holiday.
As “courtly love” gained steam during the Middle Ages and, later on, as the theater sought to portray romantic love, Valentine’s Day grew in prevalence and sentimentality. Young people would exchange handmade notes until finally Hallmark Cards began to mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards in 1918. Much to the chagrin of the single (and reluctant participants) the popularity of the day has only increased since.
What Can Christians Pull from the Origins of Valentine’s Day?
- Total commitment to Christ. Both Valentines were willing to give their lives to Christ while they lived and through the way they accepted their death. They lived for Christ in a way that put them in danger and would not renounce their faith even when threatened by death.
- Marriage is a mirror of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Ironically today, we hear that marriage is both unimportant (because you can just live together anyway, so many see it as an unnecessary formality) while simultaneously seeing marriage as the most obvious battlefield for LGBTQ+ rights. Because of what marriage represents, Valentine could not disregard its significance.
- Maybe we’re celebrating Valentine’s legacy wrong? This is pretty obvious, but I doubt someone like Valentine would feel honored by us exchanging expensive flowers and chocolates while using the day to sleep with our boyfriend or girlfriend. In this sense, the way many people celebrate Valentine’s Day actually undercuts the very foundation Valentine is credited to uphold: the value of marriage.
Valentine’s Day should be a day marked by counter-cultural love for Christ, even in the midst of great persecution. In that way, we honor the memory of both men who give their names to the day.
Where to read more: History of Saint Valentine (Catholic Education Resource Center), Saint Valentine (Catholic Online), Feb 14: This Day in History (History Channel).