The Grisly Origins of America’s Most Romantic Day of the Year

It wasn’t all chocolates and roses for the namesake of Valentine’s Day.

National Journal
Marina Koren
Feb. 14, 2014, 4:38 a.m.

Valentine’s Day is an oc­ca­sion to shower your sig­ni­fic­ant oth­er with flowers, chocol­ates, and, as one wise an­im­ated clock once said, prom­ises you don’t in­tend to keep.

Not the case cen­tur­ies ago. Long be­fore Valentine’s Day be­came Hall­mark’s hol­i­day, Feb. 14 marked the day a Ro­man priest was beaten with clubs, stoned, and be­headed for his at­tempts to pro­tect people’s right to get mar­ried.

The ori­gin of St. Valentine, and how many St. Valentines there ac­tu­ally were, re­mains a mys­tery. One was a Ro­man priest, an­oth­er an Itali­an bish­op, and a third was a cler­gy­man in Africa. None of them met happy end­ings, and all sup­posedly per­ished on Feb. 14. “Like love it­self, the start of the cel­eb­ra­tion is some­what con­fus­ing,” Ren­ee Bronaugh ap­pro­pri­ately de­scribed the murky his­tory in Mis­souri’s Daily Journ­al.

The Chris­ti­an saint most as­so­ci­ated with Valentine’s Day lived in third-cen­tury Rome, around 270 A.D. It was a per­il­ous time: Ro­man of­fi­cials per­se­cuted Chris­ti­ans for their be­liefs, poor gov­ern­ing led to con­stant do­mest­ic strife, and the threat of in­va­sion from out­side tribes loomed large.

De­term­ined to pre­serve his em­pire, Claudi­us II re­solved to build a power­ful army, but he ran in­to a prob­lem: Not enough sol­diers were en­list­ing. The em­per­or pos­ited that Ro­man men wanted to stay with their wives and fam­il­ies rather than go to war. Single men, he be­lieved, made for bet­ter sol­diers. And so Claudi­us re­putedly banned all mar­riages and en­gage­ments in the city.

Valentine, a Chris­ti­an priest, be­lieved the de­cree vi­ol­ated cit­izen’s rights, and he con­tin­ued to marry couples in secret. When the em­per­or dis­covered the black-mar­ket ce­re­mon­ies, he had Valentine im­prisoned. Dur­ing ques­tion­ing, Valentine de­nounced the Ro­man gods and tried to per­suade Claudi­us to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity, which out­raged the em­per­or. Valentine was sub­sequently sen­tenced to death for his crimes.

Le­gend has it that while he awaited his sen­tence, Valentine fell in love with the jail­er’s daugh­ter, a blind young wo­man named Ju­lia, and re­stored her sight. His last words, the story goes, were in a note to her be­fore his ex­e­cu­tion, signed “from your Valentine.”

Valentine was even­tu­ally named a mar­tyr by the Church for giv­ing up his life to per­form the sac­ra­ment of mar­riage.

But the story of how Valentine’s name be­came linked with ro­mance re­mains un­clear. The date of his death may have co­in­cided with the Feast of Lu­per­calia, a pa­gan fest­iv­al of love.

In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasi­us de­cided to put an end to the feast, and named Feb. 14 the feast day for St. Valentine in hon­or of the fallen priest. The 14th-cen­tury Eng­lish poet Geof­frey Chau­cer was the first to call the date “Valentine’s Day,” in his love poem, “The Par­lia­ment of Fowls.”

St. Valentine’s leg­acy took a hit in 1969. A lack of in­form­a­tion doc­u­ment­ing his life, as well as con­fu­sion over the hol­i­day’s ori­gins, led the Cath­ol­ic Church to drop St. Valentine’s Day from the Ro­man cal­en­dar of of­fi­cial feasts.

Of­fi­cial stand­ing in the Cath­ol­ic can­on or not, Valentine’s Day makes out well these days. An es­tim­ated 224 mil­lion roses are grown for the hol­i­day each year in the U.S. Amer­ic­ans will spend $1.6 bil­lion on candy, $1.9 bil­lion on flowers, and a whop­ping $4.4 bil­lion on jew­elry. They’ll also buy about 145 mil­lion cards for their Valentines.

They’re prob­ably not think­ing about one priest’s hor­rif­ic end cen­tur­ies ago as they shop, but they’re likely be­stow­ing their gifts in the name of what he died for.

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