Valentine’s Day is here again, Buzzkillers, and you can be certain that we’re depleting the Buzzkill bank account at a rapid clip so that we can give Lady Buzzkill all the best tokens of love and affection befitting her rank and station. And it’s always around this time of year that people ask me about St. Valentine. Did he really pass a heart-shaped note to an admirer and sign it “Your Valentine”? Was this the first Valentine’s Day card?
Despite the best attempts of the greeting card companies to tell us otherwise, there’s no real historical connection between the original St. Valentine and the modern tradition of Valentine’s Day. In the first place, there were several early Christian martyrs named Valentine, and at different points in history, some of them were referred to as saints.
The St. Valentine most often associated with Valentine’s Day traditions was a priest in third-century Rome. According to stories written hundreds of years later, the Roman emperor, Claudius, decreed that Christian priests could not marry young couples without sanction from that state. Claudius was trying to stop the practice of secret marriages because, under Roman imperial law, married men could not be sent off to war. Valentine, so the story goes, defied the imperial decree and performed marriage ceremonies for young Christian couples. It was like an early Christian version of draft dodging.
Claudius had Valentine arrested, and interrogated him personally. The emperor was so impressed by Valentine’s answers to his questions, that he tried to convert him to Roman paganism. But when Claudius realized that Valentine was turning the conversation toward converting the emperor to Christianity, he condemned him to death and threw him in prison.
Valentine prayed fervently in prison, and his jailer was so moved by Valentine’s piety that he asked him to pray for his blind daughter, Julia. Julia’s sight was miraculously restored, and the jailer’s whole family converted to Christianity. After the miracle, Valentine passed a note to Julia and signed it, “Your Valentine.” It’s here that I would say something shallow like, “and the Valentine’s Day Card myth was off and running,” but that’s not what happened.
Valentine was executed. And, after he was canonized, later generations of chroniclers connected his feast day (February 14th) to the stories of marrying young couples and the “Your Valentine” card story. And they came up with the legend of “St. Valentine as the patron of courtly love and romance.”
In modern times there have been debates over whether Valentine’s Day is really a Christianization of the mid-February pagan festival of Lupercalia, during which the Romans celebrated health and happiness. But most scholars now agree that there is no reliable evidence for this, and that St. Valentine’s legends were invented to coincide with other ancient European folk stories.
So there you have it, Buzzkillers. St. Valentine as the patron saint of love and of couples in love is, like so many other stories about saints, something added by chroniclers many centuries later. There’s no historical evidence that he’s the originator of the Valentine’s Day card. But, whatever you do, don’t tell Lady Buzzkill.