Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Who is Saint Valentine (and other things you should know)

By Lindsey Davis

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Boxes of assorted chocolates, teddy bears hugging  fluffy pink hearts, Barry White’s sensual R & B jams, glitter dunked Cupids, and dozens of fresh cut red roses from a street vendor. Were these the things that the Catholic Church had in mind in 496 A.D. when Pope Gelasius I deemed February 14th Saint Valentine’s Day? Not quite.

As holidays such as Christmas, Saint Patrick’s Day and Halloween evolve into secular American traditions as a result of a growing consumer driven market, historians uncover where and who these customs come from and their Christian and Pagan origins. And Valentine’s Day is no exception.

So, who is Valentine?

The Catholic Church recognizes three different saints under the name Valetine or Valentinus, Latin for strength and power. The most recognized Valentine was a holy priest serving in Rome during the third century when Christianity was outlawed. The emperor at the time, Claudius II, or Claudius the Goth, deemed single men more suitable to be soldiers than men with wives and children. Believing the ruling was an injustice, Valentine married young Christian couples in secret, an illegal act during the anti-Christian empirical reign in Rome. Officials eventually caught wind of his scheme and imprisoned the priest.

While he was locked away, Claudius grew fond of him. As the tables were turning for the fate of Valentine, he attempted to convert his captor, the emperor, to Christianity. It was an act of faith that led him to his demise. He was sentenced to death. On the eve of his execution, Valentine penned a letter addressed the jailor’s daughter whom was believed to have been cured of blindness with the work of Valentine which then led to a romance through the prison bars. What makes legend lies in the conclusion of his letter… “From your Valentine.” The next day, Valentine was beaten with clubs then stoned then beheaded. The day was February 14, 270 A.D. according to legend. Although archaeologists have been able to prove the year of the execution through relics and documents found in chapels and churches erected in his honor, the exact day itself has be a topic of speculation for centuries.

So if February 14 is not the exact date of his execution, why was it chosen?

In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius declared February 14th to be the day to honor Saint Valentine as a martyr for the Christian faith. This is where the speculation begins. Throughout the dawn of the Catholic Church, existing Pagan culture, which is responsible for creating the tradition that we have since adopted as the Christmas tree, threatened the expansion of the papal empire. Many attempts were made to subdue and destroy lingering pagan sentiment.

At the time of Gelasius’ proclamation, the Pagan holiday Lupercalia was the next target to dismantle. Celebrated on February 15th, Roman priests of the Luperci order gathered in a sacred cave thought to housed Romulus and Remi, the brothers who founded Rome, as they were raised by a she-wolf.  To honor the founders and Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, the priests sacrificed a goat for fertility and a dog for purity. The goat’s hide was stripped to gently strike women in the field in the hopes to ensure fertility for the coming year.

Lupercalia was outlawed by the Church by the end of the 5th century and for centuries after, Saint Valentine’s Day was simply a day of religious worship and feast.

It was not until the Middle Ages that Valentine’s attempts to unify Christians in marriage captivated the imaginations of English and French lovers.

The legends and traditions associated with Valentine’s Day today derived from the tantalizingly romantic words of poets and authors such as Geoffrey Chaucery as they wrote of love entangled with mystery, fantasy and romance during a time when love and marriage were based on duty and honor.

Written valentines became popular after 1400. The oldest known written valentine is a poet by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415 after the Battle of Agincourt. Similar to many men today, not all were blessed with romantic discourse. King Henry V hired writer John Lydgate to write valentines for Catherine of Valois.

Wondering about where Cupid comes into this?

Cupid appears in both Roman and Greek Mythology with slight variations. In Roman tradition, the arrow laden god is the son on Venus, the goddess of love. It is believed that just one strike of his arrow can cause undying love. The Cupid imagery was not added to Valentine’s Day celebration until several centuries after Valentine’s death.

Lindsey Davis can be reached at [email protected]

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