Who Was Saint Valentine? And What Do We Celebrate On February 14?
Many traditions (not just from the West) connect February 14 with the reproductive cycles of birds, but the name still refers to a Saint worth remembering.
One of the earliest of Christian saints, Saint Valentine’s destiny was unfortunate. Today, the patron saint of love and friendship is celebrated with flowers, love letters and chocolates. But the day has its own history. It’s related to the reproductive cycles of birds and agricultural traditions that long precede even Christianity.
It’s important to remember that much of the Western calendar, as with St. Valentine’s Day, have its origins in the Roman culture – once called the “pagan” calendar. As with any syncretism, this date was preserved through its Christianization. The original rite are always worthy of note. And some part of the contemporary meanings of many of these days will retain their almost-forgotten secrets, stretching back to even remote times. Particularly in relation to fertility, they reveal intimate connections with the most primeval of agricultural traditions.
Legend has it that Saint Valentine was one of the first martyrs sacrificed. He was executed by the Roman emperor, Claudius II, for refusing to abandon his Christian beliefs. Even worse, he officiated at the marriages of army soldiers knowing full well that the emperor had expressly prohibited the practice. The date of his death was February 14. A second legend holds that he’s also the patron saint of lovers because his feast day coincided with the time of the year when birds begin the courtship rituals which lead to their mating. It’s a cycle intimately linked with planting and with the seasons of the year.
The story needs little interpretation. As Claudius murdered the saint of love for his Christian faith, Pope Gelasius I, in later years, banned the Lupercalias (the Roman fertility celebration) and replaced it with the feast day of St. Valentine – a parallel celebration, albeit with a different name. In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem entitled “Parlement of Foules,” the first record we have of St. Valentine’s Day as the celebration of lovers; 18 years later, France’s Charles VI created a High Court of Love (based on precedents from Provencal and Italy), and where, on the first Sunday of each month and on St. Valentine’s Day, a series of tournaments was held in which participants competed to be matched with the maidens of the court.
Another treasure in the history of love, the oldest known St. Valentine’s letter was written in 1416 by the French Duke, Charles of Orleans. After being captured at the Battle of Agincourt and locked in the Tower of London, he wrote his words of love to his wife, Bonne de Armagnac.
The custom later spread throughout Europe and survived several attempts to suppress it by Lutheranism and Protestantism. 18th century England soon gave rise to something similar to today’s St. Valentine’s day: so-called Valentines. These were small postcards hand written and illustrated with plump Cupids and hearts, along with the custom of giving chocolates and romantic mementos.
St. Valentine’s Day has today taken a new course, and it’s related to the economy and trade. More roses are bought on Valentine’s day than on any other day of the year. Quite likely, Valentinus, the saint killed by Claudius, could never have imagined to what his story would one day lead. It’s a story that should be remembered and which survives as one of our greatest sources of inspiration, one which remains priceless, even today.
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