Like St. Patrick's Day or Mardi Gras, the religious origins of St. Valentine's Day have been largely forgotten. Some may lay the blame for that at the feet of shameless commercialism, but that's only half the story. Truth be told, the revered saint from whom we derive today's festivities, we know little about; a man whose ethos rivals that of St. Nicholas.
Who exactly was this St. Valentine? How did he become so synonymous with romantic love? Is there, in fact, a man behind the myth?
Though historians have dismissed much of what's been said of St. Valentine as hagiography, here's what we do know about the man: he existed under the reign of Emperor Claudius II and was martyred for practicing the faith around the year 269 AD. So little historical evidence exists on the details of the man's life that historians debate whether stories about him pertain to two different saints or one St. Valentine, who would have been called by his Latin name "Valentinus."
In fact, the accounts of St. Valentine are so unreliable that, in 1969, the Catholic Church removed his name from the General Roman Calendar, leaving his liturgical celebration to local calendars. Nevertheless, archeologists and historians do agree that the man existed, whose bones can even be visited at Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin. The Catholic Church still considers him a saint.
All that aside, the most popular interpretation of St. Valentine's life, given the time and culture in which he existed, is quite timely. Though typically associated with courtly, romantic love, St. Valentine could almost be considered a defender of biblical marriage in a time of sexual confusion. Father Frank O'Gara of Whitefriars Street Church in Dublin — the resting place of Valentine's bones — described him as a priest who gave his life in defense of marriage.
"He was a Roman priest at a time when there was an emperor called Claudius who persecuted the church at that particular time," Father O'Gara explains. "He also had an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because married soldiers might be afraid of what might happen to them or their wives or families if they died."
"I think we must bear in mind that it was a very permissive society in which Valentine lived," says Father O'Gara. "Polygamy would have been much more popular than just one woman and one man living together. And yet some of them seemed to be attracted to Christian faith. But obviously the church thought that marriage was very sacred between one man and one woman for their life and that it was to be encouraged. And so it immediately presented the problem to the Christian church of what to do about this."
"The idea of encouraging them to marry within the Christian church was what Valentine was about. And he secretly married them because of the edict."
Time eventually ran out for Valentine when Emperor Claudius caught him violating the edict. For punishment, the saint was imprisoned and tortured. Father O'Gara describes some of the legends attributed to Valentine while in prison.
"One of the men who was to judge him in line with the Roman law at the time was a man called Asterius, whose daughter was blind," says Father O'Gara. "He was supposed to have prayed with and healed the young girl with such astonishing effect that Asterius himself became Christian as a result."
St. Valentine suffered a violent martyrdom in the year 269 AD when he was allegedly sentenced to a three-part execution by way of beating, stoning, and finally decapitation. Legend has it that his last words were in a note to Asterius' daughter, signing it, "from your Valentine."
"What Valentine means to me as a priest," explains Father O'Gara, "is that there comes a time where you have to lay your life upon the line for what you believe. And with the power of the Holy Spirit we can do that — even to the point of death."
Though February 14 is St. Valentine's feast day, the holiday known as "Valentine's Day" and its association with courtly, romantic love actually comes from Geoffrey Chaucer's poem "Parlement of Foules," which associated the day with the pairing of birds in mid-February, giving the day its romantic flair.