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Who is this man credited with promoting love and passion and sales in the billions of dollars, world-wide, of flowers, candy and skimpy garments of a diaphanous nature? My search to know more about the saint who came to be known as the saint of lovers would prove to be anything but simple.
At the beginning, I was confronted with a pagan pastoral festival known as Lupercalia, a Roman celebration which was observed from February 13 through 15. Its purpose was to stave off evil spirits and to purify the city. It was believed that this act of purification promoted health and fertility. It was part of an early spring-cleaning ritual called Februa, from which the month of February gets its name.
What I’m about to tell you may be taken with a grain of salt, but I think some of you ladies out there might find this very interesting: During the ancient Lupercalia festival, an order of Roman priests would gather in the cave believed to be the place where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, had been nurtured by the she-wolf. The priests would sacrifice a goat and a dog for purification and then slice the goat’s hide into strips. They would dip the strips in the blood and then walk through the streets touching women and field crops with the goat-hide strips. Roman women considered the ritual a good thing since they believed that being touched by the blood-stained strips would make them more fertile for the coming year.
According to legend, the women would place their names in a large urn. Each bachelor would then come along and pick a name out of the urn and be paired with the woman whose name he picked. The couple would then live together for the remainder of the year. Many of these matches often resulted in marriage which might be considered an improvement over today’s on-line dating. One might ask: What does the Lupercalia festival have to do with St. Valentine’s Day? I’m coming to that.
While there are some who believe Saint Valentine’s Day is celebrated February 14, to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial which was supposed to have occurred on that date around A.D. 270, there are still others who would argue that the Christian church had conveniently placed St. Valentine’s feast day between February 13 and 15 in its effort to Christianize the pagan festival of Lupercalia.
Sometime around A.D. 498, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day. This bit of information seems to be contradicted by the fact that Pope Gelasius’ occupancy of the papal seat lasted from 492 to 496, so you decide. Suffice it to say that it was “around A.D. 498” that the Roman lottery system of romantic pairing was considered to be in opposition to Christian ideals and was consequently outlawed.
The reliability of information regarding St. Valentine is quite meager except for the claim that he died in Rome on February 14. What is more, it is uncertain if St. Valentine is to be identified with one saint or two or perhaps more saints. Several differing martyrologies (the branch of history or literature which deals with the lives of martyrs) and hagiographies (the writing of the lives of saints) are said to be unreliable.
The name “Valentine,” is derived from valens, meaning worthy, strong or powerful. It was quite a popular name, which accounts for the fact that there are about eleven saints by that name. However, the Roman Catholic martyology lists seven who died on days other than February 14: They were a priest from Viterbo (November 3); a bishop from Raetia (January 7); a fifth century priest and hermit (July 4); a Spanish hermit (who died about October 25); Valentino Berro Ochoa (November 24); Valentino Juanzaras Gomez (September 18) and the virgin Santa Valentina (July 25). All were thought to have been supportive of anyone in love.
However, the St. Valentine which we normally associate with February 14 is most likely the one with whom we credit, in the modern day, as being the saint of lovers. The legend of Valentino dates back to third century Rome where he served as a priest. It seems that he was quite accommodating when it came to officiating marriages. But uniting couples in holy matrimony was often a clandestine affair, because there was a problem: Emperor Claudius II had decided that celibate men made better soldiers. Consequently, he outlawed marriage for all young men. Valentine ignored the emperor’s decree and continued to perform marriages in secret. When Claudius learned of Valentine’s continued defiance, he imprisoned Valentine and sentenced him to be executed.
At this point in our story, we come to a surprising scenario about St. Valentine which many people find rather amusing. It is said that while in prison, St. Valentine actually fell in love with his jailor’s young daughter who visited him often during his confinement. As the story goes, before his death, St. Valentine wrote a letter to her signing it, “From your Valentine,” which may very well have been the origin of the words we still used today when signing cards to our spouses and sweethearts.
Whether one believes or does not believe that the world has a saint who deals with matters of the heart is, of course, a personal matter. But it is not likely that the popularity of St. Valentine will fade any time soon. He has endured as the saint of lovers for more than seventeen centuries and it is quite likely that even non-believers may secretly think of him as the “go-to-guy” who helps us to connect with that special person in our lives. He is certainly the go-to-guy who at least once a year, sprinkles a bit of sweetness into the recipe of our everyday lives while the last melodic refrain of the Rogers and Hart song echoes in the mind:
“Stay little Valentine. Stay. Each day is Valentine’s Day.”