Valentine’s Day, or is it St. Valentine’s Day? Either way, on February 14 each year the holiday is celebrated. Cards, flowers, candy and other gifts are given to sweethearts. Hearts and cupids are popular Valentine’s Day images.
How did this holiday (not a national holiday, but nevertheless widely observed, here and elsewhere) evolve?
Three St. Valentines are mentioned in early martyrologies; each saint’s feast day was February 14. The first St. Valentine lived during the reign (41-54 AD) of the Roman Emperor Claudius and was beheaded on February 14, 270. Buried on the Flaminian Way, his remains (relics) were transferred to St. Praxedes Church. A second St. Valentine, the Bishop of Interamna (now Terni), was martyred during the reign (268-270) of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. A third St. Valentine, about whom almost nothing is known, was martyred in Africa. The Roman Catholic Church celebrated St. Valentine’s feast day on February 14 until 1969. That year the Church removed St. Valentine from the General Roman Calendar; his feast day is now observed in local calendars although he is still considered a saint.
How did St. Valentine’s (or the Saints Valentines’) Day become associated with a holiday celebrating romantic or courtly love? In England and France during the Middle Ages many people believed that birds began to mate on February 14. This association of Valentine’s Day and the mating of birds can be seen in the work of the medieval English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400). In Chaucer’s “The Parliment of Fowles,” he mentions Cupid and Venus and says, “You know that on Saint Valentine’s Day … You come to choose … Your mates [referring to fowls]” From these ideas Valentine’s Day became associated with lovers and the exchanging of letters, gifts or other tokens.
William Saunders, History of St. Valentine, explains, “While it seems that the exchange of ‘valentines’ is more the result of secular custom rather than the memory of St. Valentine … there is a Christian message that should be remembered. The love of our Lord … is a sacrificial, self-less, and unconditional love. Such is the love that each Christian is called to express in his own life, for God and neighbor.”
In that spirit, this writer is including an untitled poem from Falvey’s Digital Library; it was written by Joseph McGarrity (1874-1940), an Irish American businessman who immigrated in 1890.
A thousand thanks to the King of Kings
For all the blessings St Valentine brings
I can boast of enjoying the pleasures of life
Two innocent babies and the love of a wife
A home that is happy and health to enjoy
With hope for the future both boyant [sic] and bright
And cares of each day put away for the night
With so many good things I’ve got reason to say
May the world be as happy on Vale[tine’s] day
Feby 12 – 1814
The Golden Legend (1973, originally written 13th C.) Jacobus de Voragine. Trans. by Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger.
The Lives of the Saints. February (1872) Rev. S. Baring-Gould.
Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine (1986) Henry Ansgar Kelly.
Valentine’s Day: A Musical Drama in Two Acts … (1776) William Heard.
Valentines (2008) Ted Kooser.
“History of St. Valentine” William Saunders.