For many people Valentine’s Day is a day for roses, chocolates and public declarations of affection or even proposals. For others it’s just a modern commercial rip-off. But did you ever stop to think how Valentine’s Day started? Here’s a hint : it wasn’t Hallmark greeting cards who came up the idea!
It might surprise you to know that there actually was a man called Valentine who died on February 14th and later made a saint. In fact there may even have been two or three whose stories are intertwined with the February 14th legend. And just to confuse matters further, there are several more saint Valentines and even a Pope Valentine down through the ages. And pretty much all of them were Italians! Who knew?!
So where do we start?
The first mention of Valentine, or Valentinus in Latin, was in 496 AD when Pope Gelasius I added him to a list of saints, proclaiming a feast day for him and those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” And that was that, nothing else was said about his life or deeds.
Later church sources talk of three Valentines, all of whom died or were connected to the date of February 14th.
Valentine number one was a Roman priest. Valentine number two was the Bishop of Interamma, or modern Terni in Umbria. And Valentine number three was just said to be a saint who suffered on February 14th along with some companions. What they suffered, we don’t know, and in fact little else is known about the third chap so let’s concentrate on the first two.
The stories of the first two characters are actually very similar leading many to speculate that they were one and the same person. Both were priests working in, or close to Rome. Both were killed for their faith by the Romans within a couple of years of each other and both are buried outside the city walls along the Via Flaminia, a Roman road that dissects Italy from the capital, through Umbria and out to the east coast near Rimini.
The strongest story tells of a priest working in Rome around the time of Emperor Claudius the Cruel – sounds like a nice chap, doesn’t he?! Claudius was struggling with unrest in his military due to unpopular campaigns abroad and so decided to ban marriage or even engagements, reasoning that if soldiers didn’t have wives or girlfriends to worry about they would be more focused on war instead of women! Told you he was a lovely bloke!
Valentine was having none of it and, despite the fact that Christians were under persecution from the emperor at the time, continued to encourage marriage, conducting weddings in secret and setting him on a collision course with the emperor.
Needless to say our hero was tracked down and imprisoned for his defiance.
The legend of Valentine, the Bishop of Terni, talks of him converting to Christianity and being ordained as a youth of just 21 in 197 AD. He spent his entire life as a preacher spreading the new religion but the Romans were increasingly concerned by his influence.
Valentine was put under house arrest during which Judge Asterius decided to put the priest’s faith to the test. He challenged Valentine to cure his daughter of blindness and deafness. The priest duly placed his hands over the young girl’s eyes and prayed, revealing her restored sight and hearing as he removed his hands. Asterius and his family immediately converted to Christinanity and released the priest but sadly that wasn’t the end of the story.
Valentinus was arrested again for continuing to conduct weddings, and told to renounce his faith or face death by beating, stoning and then decapitation. His fate was sealed but the legend tells that just before his death Valentine left a note to the young girl whose sight he’d healed, signing off “from your Valentine.”
Whether he was a Roman priest or the Bishop of Terni, Valentine was executed outside the Flaminian Gate on Via Flaminia on February 14th 269, 270 or 273 AD, depending on which story you read. The early Christian followers of the Bishop are even said to have retrieved his body, taking it back to Terni where the Basilica of San Valentino stands over the tomb of the martyr.
And so was born a legend, all because Valentine stood up for young lovers, marriage and signed off as “your Valentine.” Fascinating eh?
Just to confuse matters there are around 11 other St Valentines, all celebrated at different times of the year by different churches. The Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, celebrates the first St Valentine on July 6th and the second on July 30th. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church lists another 7 saints including a priest from Viterbo who is commemorated on November 3rd, a Spanish hermit remembered on October 25th and even a woman, Saint Valentina, martyred on July 25th. None of these, however, has any link to the original February 14th story.
Of course, we’ll probably never know if any of this was true but whether you believe it or not, St Valentine has gone on to become the patron saint of lovers and happy marriages and has spawned an entire industry of hearts and flowers! The citizens of Terni celebrate their hero every year and still have a basilica dedicated to him. He’s also patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, the plague, fainting and traveling! Blimey, what a busy man he must be, eh!
So now you know why we celebrate love and romance on February 14th. And whether you will be wining and dining your loved one or spending it alone I hope you will have a lovely time. Leave me a comment with your valentine plans or favourite romantic memories. And if you want to keep the romantic Italian theme going in honour of St Valentine why not say Happy Valentine or I love you in the language of love, or even get down on bended knee in one of these beautiful Italian locations! With love, from your Valentine!