Before we all get drunk on woo, it’s best we honour St Valentine. Problem is, according to history, there are three claimants.
Valentine’s Day – the most romantic day on the calendar – and perhaps you’ve already planned the perfect fairy-tale date with the person you fancy the most.
But where did it all come from? The name “Valentine” is thrown around with gay abandon but who exactly was he, this saint associated with love and romance, and whose memory is celebrated on 14 February? I say “memory” but actually his memory isn’t celebrated at all. The cold hard truth of the matter is that no one really gives a flying you-know-what about poor old Valentine.
So today we offer a modest attempt to remedy this gap in our collective knowledge and to bring the “Valentine” back into Valentine’s Day. It turns out that there are three possible candidates for our man of the hour.
In third century Rome, the emperor Claudius II decreed that young men were forbidden to marry. Claudius had this crazy idea that men with wives and children couldn’t keep their minds on the job when they were at war, and he wanted all his soldiers to be single. Valentine was a local Roman priest who thought this was a ridiculous decision and he continued to perform weddings for young lovers.
Claudius had quite liked Valentine to this point, but these marriages, plus the fact that Valentine tried to convert Claudius to Christianity, put a stop to that. Claudius had Valentine executed. It was 14 February.
We’re in the same time frame here, but this Valentine, a bishop living in what is now Terni in Italy, helped Christian prisoners to escape Roman incarceration, only to be caught in the act and imprisoned himself. During his trial, he miraculously restored the sight of a blind girl, with whom he may have fallen in love. Unfortunately for Valentine #2, all this Christianity didn’t cut the mustard with the powers that be and he was beheaded. The story goes that just before his death he wrote the girl a love letter signing it “from your Valentine”.
Valentine #3 appears to have been a missionary in Africa. He not only failed to convert Africans to the Christian faith but was martyred for trying. That’s about all anyone knows. The date of his death is also 14 February.
His gruesome death softened by the mists of time, when it all boils down, Valentine is a representative of love itself.
So what’s all this about love and romance? How does a martyred saint become associated with the lovey-dovey sentimentality of Valentine’s Day?
Again, there are a number of theories. Back in pre-Christian times, a festival of love and fertility called Lupercalia was held in mid-February. It sounds like a bit of a lottery, where the names of marriageable girls were drawn out of a box by marriageable men. Married at first sight – just like the television show! Anyway, the story goes that in the late fifth century, Pope Gelasius wanted to stop the celebration of Lupercalia and announced that 14 February would become known as St Valentine’s Day. The pagans weren’t quite ready to give up on their traditions, so they continued to exchange love tokens on that day.
Another theory, this one dating from the Middle Ages, holds that St Valentine’s Day was the day that birds sought out a mate and set about having baby birds. You know – love birds. If it was good enough for birds to declare their love, then why not people too?
But wait! There are many who believe that the romantic nature of St Valentine’s Day was all Geoffrey Chaucer’s doing. The famous author (1343-1400) of The Canterbury Tales was the one who wrote all that business about birds coming together to mate on 14 February. This was in his Parlement of Foules (c. 1380). Of course, Chaucer may not have been the first to posit this idea, but he’s the one who gets all the credit.
Also on The Big Smoke
- The best (messed up) films to celebrate Valentine’s Day
- Valentine’s Day: To those who have loved and lost
The definitive origins of the romantic association of Valentine’s Day have remained a matter for speculation. As for Valentine himself (whichever one you prefer), his long-ago deeds were motivated by love of faith, love of people and a desire to help those in love to be together. His gruesome death softened by the mists of time, when it all boils down, Valentine is a representative of love itself.
Since medieval times, the custom of exchanging love letters or other tokens of romantic devotion on 14 February has gathered momentum, and these days it’s largely a shallow, overly-commercialised event.
So when you’re out there in the Land of Mammon buying up schmaltzy greeting cards, silk-clad teddy bears, expensive chocolates, French champagne, big-ticket items of jewellery or overpriced flowers, spare a moment for St Valentine himself. What he wouldn’t do for a glass of bubbly, not to mention a date!