Random Essays

Who Was Saint Valentine? (A brief history of Valentine’s Day)


        The origins of this holiday are actually quite fascinating; the day as we know and celebrate took centuries to possess the current form it now has. Ironically,though the celebration of the day itself is rooted in Roman tradition, it is actually quite a Christian holiday.

        The name “Valentine”(it means strong,respectful, powerful; this name is a Latin translation of “Valentinus”, which is a Roman name) was immensely aggrandized in Antiquity, especially in Rome. According to Roman Catholic martyrology, there are nine saints who bear this name, all of whom were martyred. During the reign of the emperor Claudius, there was a Christian priest who was called Valentine that preached to Roman citizens and (secretly) married those folks who adopted the new faith. (Christianity had not been officially adopted by the Roman Empire yet.) At any rate, Claudius adopted a policy that young men who wished to serve in the Roman army could not be married; obviously, this did not sit well with Valentine, who continued his quest to Christianize the Roman Empire. When his actions were made aware to Claudius, he had Valentine executed on February 14th, in the year 270 A.D.


Saint Valentine, 3rd century

According to various legends, Valentine was imprisoned for a time by Claudius before his execution in an attempt to have him renounce his faith; he was subjected to brutal forms of punishment for not complying to the emperor’s wish. On certain occasions, a young Roman maiden would periodically visit him; Valentine was so captivated by her beauty that he cut out a “heart-shaped” piece from his clothing and signed it, ”from your Valentine”. (Hence, this custom is still in use today.) On other occasions, from his prison cell, Roman citizens would often visit him primarily because of his ability to perform miracles. He would often reach out from his jail cell window and lay hands on the sick and heal them; still, on another occasion, he was said to have resurrected a dead child that was brought before him. In any event, the citizens of Rome, because of the miracles associated with him, demanded he be released; Claudius would not have it so.

        While his name continues to be linked with February 14th, some scholars have presented the contention that this date was chosen for a more theological reason. Around this date (or time), the Roman festival of “Lupercalia” took place; this was a festival to honor the Roman god, Faunus, the God of agriculture, as well as to the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. (See Virgil’s ancient epic poem, The Aeneid.) The festival would commence at a mystical cave where, according to Roman tradition, these two Roman founders were raised by a she-wolf. Here, the Roman priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification.The goat’s hide would then be cut into strips, dipped in sacrificial blood and taken into the streets; as a result, they would gently slap women with these hides believing that it made them fertile in the coming Spring. Subsequently, all the unmarried women in Rome would have their names placed in a clay jar where available bachelors would choose a name, and be paired with that woman; this would usually end in a marriage. Obviously, this declaration did not sit well with the early Church. So, to eradicate this kind of activity, the festival was replaced with the martyrdom of a (certain) Saint Valentine, on February 14th, placed in effect, by Pope Gelasius. However, it was not until much later that this day would become associated with love and romance.

        During the Middle Ages, peasants believed that birds began to mate at this time of year. Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, wrote the first modern literary reference to Valentine’s Day; in a 1382 poem entitled ‘Parlement of Foules’, Chaucer wrote:  ‘For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.’ As a result of this belief, young peasant woman began to “hunt” for men at this time of the season and began cutting “heart-shaped” valentines and giving them to the men of their desire. (Apparently, the custom of “cutting hearts” by Saint Valentine himself grew wide in popularity in early medieval times, especially in England and France. However, the “heart-shape” itself dates to later medieval times; there is a theory among historians that this custom may even date back to Roman antiquity, possible by Valentine himself, although no historical evidence supports this. Whereas the “heart-shaped” valentines we now send to each other was quite popular by the 13th century; hence, the custom is antique and accurately demonstrates the “True Love Never Dies” theme.) The only HISTORICAL mention we have of Saint Valentine is in the medieval book of “The Golden Legend.” (This was the most popular work of the Middle Ages.) Here, this work mentions him converting many people to Christianity, performing marriage ceremonies, and working miracles. He is said to be passionately devoted to young people who fall in love and get baptized as “Soldiers of Christ”. The oldest known “written” valentine in existence today was a poem by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415; he wrote it to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture during the Battle of Agincourt. (Shakespeare makes a reference to this famous battle in his play, Henry V.)

        Eventually, into modern times, the colors of pink and red would be adopted as the colors of love and romance, primarily by the American contribution to the holiday. Throughout the centuries, many painters and poets venerated the God Cupid (God of love and desire), who would become a zealous symbol of Valentine’s Day for those unfortunate in their quest for love. According to Roman mythology, Cupid would shoot magical arrows (of those he SELECTIVELY chose) into people that were in want of affection and desire. He carried two types of arrows; ones that are of gold, and ones of led. If you were shot with a gold arrow, you were uncontrollable in your desire for love; if your were shot with a lead, you fled away from the person who was seeking you. (It is interesting to note that Cupid was an enemy of chastity.) In America, exchanging of Valentine’s began in the early 1700’s; in the 1840’s, a lady by the name of Esther A. Howland, began “mass-producing” valentine cards.They were made from lace, ribbons and heart shapes that were strewn with colorful pictures that are known today as “scrap.” It is estimated that a billion valentine cards are sold annually in the United States. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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