Who was Saint Valentine?

Mark Driscoll

Valentine’s Day is often loved by women and loathed by men, who drop their cash on flowers, jewelry, candy, and cards. Perhaps comic Jay Leno expressed the male dilemma about Valentine’s Day best in one of his monologues: “Today is Valentine’s Day—or, as men like to call it, Extortion Day!” Conversely, the hopelessly romantic at heart enjoy the opportunity that Valentine’s Day affords for thoughtful romance and unbridled passion.

Whether you love or hate Valentine’s Day, the fact is that it has evolved into an enormous holiday. The question remains, however, who is Valentine and how did he come to be associated with everything from the color red to some secret known only by a woman named Victoria?

While the details of his life are sketchy at best, Valentine was allegedly a Christian who was canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint. His name was common and is derived from the Latin wordvalens, meaning strong and powerful.

One legend claims that Emperor Claudius II (or Claudius the Goth) outlawed marriage because he decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families and he wanted to bolster the strength of his military. But a priest named Valentine secretly performed marriages, thereby defending romance and love.

Another legend claims that just prior to being beheaded, Valentine prayed over the daughter of his jailer. This led to the curing of her blindness and the conversion of her entire family, including her father, though he still put Valentine to death toward the end of the third century.

Further contributing to all of the confusion is the fact that there may have been as many as three Christians named Valentine who were all martyred, thereby making it seemingly impossible to know which stories are true and to which men they apply.

Although the celebration of the life of Saint Valentine was not initially met with much fanfare, he eventually grew in popularity for a very practical reason. Around AD 498, Pope Gelasius chose February 14 as the day for commemorating Valentine’s life because that was the day he reportedly died as a Christian martyr around AD 270. That day proved to be serendipitous, as the medieval legend emerged that birds select their mates on February 14, thereby associating the day with romance and love. Also, Saint Valentine’s Day fell the day before the Hefner-esque Roman fertility feast of Lupercalia on February 15. Lupercalia was a drunken, naked crazy-fest not unlike modern-day Mardi Gras celebrations. Lupercalia was dedicated to the god of partying, Faunus, and was marked by the usual frat-boy nonsense of naked guys running through the streets while crowds danced and drank heavily, and young singles enjoyed “hooking up.”

Once Saint Valentine became connected with the debauchery of Lupercalia, his Christian influence on the holiday quickly waned; the two holidays essentially merged and the spirit of Lupercalia remained but was renamed Valentine’s Day. At this point, Valentine’s Day quickly grew in popularity. Its association with the color red may stem from the fact that the color red was chosen to commemorate the death of Valentine who died the bloody death of a martyr. Also, the association with the chubby, winged pseudo-angel Cupid, who is the mythical son of the Roman goddess of love, Venus, is a Lupercalia leftover from pagan mythology.

Perhaps the most common present-day tradition associated with Valentine’s Day is the giving of valentine cards. No one is certain how this tradition began. One legend reports that Valentine actually sent the first valentine. The story goes that while in prison awaiting his execution, he wrote a love letter to a woman and signed it, “From your Valentine.” Apparently the expression stuck and remains perennially popular.

By the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day was widely celebrated. The first Valentine’s Day card was reportedly a poem sent by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, to his wife in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. That card remains on display at the British Museum in London to this day. By 1450, to be someone’s valentine was synonymous with being his or her sweetheart. By 1533, a valentine was synonymous with a piece of paper folded as a romantic card. By 1610, valentine gifts were also commonly given to sweethearts.

By the mid-1700s, Valentine’s Day grew in popularity throughout Great Britain, and around that time Americans also began exchanging handmade valentine cards. By the 1840s, the commercial greeting card companies began mass-producing valentines marked by such girlie adornments as lace and ribbon. Today, an estimated one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, following Christmas.

Sadly, the holiday in his name completely ignores our Christian brother Valentine. As a pastor, he likely would have been mortified at much of what is done in the name of love to commemorate the day his head was chopped off because of his love for Jesus.

Originally published February 14, 2010

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