Thursday, February 14, 2013

St. Valentine's Day

When I was a kid, no school day was greeted
with more happy anticipation than Valentine's Day.
Each desk held a box hand-decorated with red and pink hearts,
 a slot for the easy deposit of valentines cut in the top.
There were refreshments of red punch and cookies or cupcakes frosted pink.
We never questioned the origin of the holiday,
we were too busy celebrating our mid-winter party.

photo courtesy of

But the origins of this holiday are very interesting--
especially since there is little proof about who St. Valentine was
or even which St. Valentine is honored with his own holiday.
That's right, there is more than one St. Valentine,
as many as eight men by some accounts;
and according to the website,
there's even a female saint named Valentina,
who could conceivably be the real patron saint of love and affection.

St. Valentine
St. Valentine image from

The St. Valentine many researchers consider to be the most likely saint
who is patron to lovers, married couples, beekeepers, travelers,
young people, and plague
 (in a good way, I assume for that last one),
is the Valentine who was a Roman priest, 
imprisoned for aiding Christians during their persecution by Claudius II.
That Valentine was martyred on February 14, 269 AD
and buried along the Via Flaminia. 
Some relics have been recovered for this St. Valentine,
including catacombs and a church built in his honor
near the site of his burial.
In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius I  named
February 14th a feast day in Valentine's honor.

photo courtesy of

But according to the same site, the Valentine's Day 
of hearts and flowers arrived  much, much later.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Middle English author 
of Canterbury Tales may have been responsible.
Jack Oruch of the University of Kansas
says Chaucer created this day of affection for his book Parliament of Foules,
a fiction about old traditions.
Chaucer's description of Valentine's Day sparked some observances,
including the giving of written declarations of affection.
Oruch theorizes that the associations with romance and love
were expanded by 18th-century writers.

photo courtesy of

On the other hand, the Roman festival of Lupercalia from February 13th - 15th
has been described as a day of public lust and intoxication in many accounts,
so it is equally possible that church fathers
devised St. Valentine's feast day as a more civilized substitute.

Knowing that our Valentine's Day
is based on ancient mid-winter celebrations of love in one form or another
makes me marvel at how our modern holidays
often repeat traditions and customs
that have been observed for centuries.
It just goes to show,
saying "I love you" never gets old.


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