Today is the day when hallmark are rubbing their hands together as people everywhere exchange cards, declaring that today they love each other more than any other day of the year, but actually the really St. Valentine is a far stretch from the patron saint of love that you might believe that he is.
I am sure that when you think of valentine’s day, you are thinking of cute cherubs, hearts, flowers and chocolates, so when I tell you that a few people with the name Valentinus were beheaded on this day, I doubt it gives you that warm fuzzy feeling that receiving a gift and a card does.
There is actually very little information around this saint, but there is an order of monks called the Bollandists who have been gathering data on saints so that they can document them, which has given some insight in to the origins of this story.
The picture above, is said to be the actual remains of St. Valentine, which are held in the basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin. You can see that they have loving used a label maker to stick a name tag on his head.
February 14th was liturgical feast to celebrate the decapitation of the couple of christian martyrs, so how do we get from beheading to declarations of love?
There were actually several St. Valentines, and at least two of these were executed on the 14th of February during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 269 – 270 AD.
The story goes that St. Valentine was arrested and put in the charge of Asterius who was an aristocrat at the time.
This, for all purposes seemed to be a bit of a failing on the Emperor’s front, as the saint spoke endlessly about the Christians leading the pagans out of the shadows of darkness and into the light of truth and salvation. Asterius had a daughter who was blind and struck a deal with Valentine, in that if he could “cure” his daughter’s blindness, his whole family would convert to christianity. St. Valentine placed his hand on the forehead of the girl and chanted “Lord Jesus Christ, en-lighten your handmaid, because you are God, the True Light”. Just like that, the girl could see. With that the whole family were baptised. Gothicus was not very happy with this, and ordered all of them to be executed. As it transpired only St. Valentine was executed, as I am sure that Asterius was able to buy his way out of his condemnation. A pious unnamed widow, did make off with his body and buried it on the site of his martyrdom. It’s funny that there is always someone around to ensure that saints are buried.
The story of the second St. Valentine who was killed on the same day, has a very similar theme and the Bollandists muse that there was actually probably only one saint, and differing stories have emerged of his good deeds.
St. Valentine was also known to perform marriage rituals and pass notes between jailed christian lovers, which is where the card tradition probably stems from.
Many churches across Europe claim to have pieces of St. Valentine in their treasury as we know, the christians love a relic as this symbolises the force of the saint still in action despite their passing.
It was Chaucer who, around ten thousand years after the death of the saint, attributed this to be a feast to be linked to the mating of birds in “The Canterbury Tales”. He wrote “For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”. Audiences lapped up this idea, of birds meeting in February to mate and it wasn’t long before this was becoming a cultural reference for lovers. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia identifies herself as “Hamlet’s Valentine”. Soon it became a tradition that the midpoint of February would be when people would grab their pens and write verses to their loved one, as the birds paired off to lay their eggs (well those that could write would do this anyway). With the onset of industrialisation, this made it much easier to mass produce cards, and finally along came the companies of Cadbury and Hershey, giving way to the Valentine’s day you all know today.
So, spare a thought for the headless less romantic saint and his many relics stored away for prosperity and spiritualism.
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