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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