St. Valentine’s Day is two weeks away! I hope all the love-birds out there are getting ready for the big event. St. Valentine has been purported to be the patron saint of lovers for centuries. Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. set aside February 14 to honor St. Valentine. However, the history behind the actual person and his actions is cloudy at best. Some say he was a priest who secretly married couples during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius II. Claudius had outlawed marriage so that he could conscript more single men for his army. Supposedly after his arrest Valentine sent notes to Christians that were signed, “From your Valentine.” There are stories of his officiating at his jailer’s daughter’s wedding, too. According to tradition Valentine was beheaded by the emperor on February 14, 269 A.D.
What makes all this so interesting is that February 14 is the same day that had been dedicated to Roman love lotteries for over 800 years. Love lotteries were a Roman matchmaking scheme whereby eligible singles in towns and villages drew names of the opposite sex so that they could be paired for a specified time period. These love lotteries were held on the day before February 15, which is, of course, the 14th, the day dedicated to the Roman god Lupercus, so that couples could be matched. I guess they didn’t need eHarmony.com.
Needless to say 800 years of a coupling custom was hard to undo even when the empire became mostly Christian. After all, love is what makes the world go round. Therefore, whether there was ever a guy named Valentine who sent love notes or not is immaterial to the greater worship of love. So, conveniently, Valentine, or the story of Valentine, was canonized and made a saint so that Christians could usurp yet another pagan holiday and turn it into something good.
Ironically, the suspicious origins of Valentine’s Day caused the Roman Catholic Church to drop it as an official Feast Day in 1969. In reversal of the church’s co-opting of a Roman mating ritual, our contemporary pop culture recaptured the original intent of February 14 – a day with an emphasis on Lupercalian tokens of love. The irony is that what was pagan-turned Christian has now been co-opted by the candy makers and greeting card companies, plus a host of other suppliers. So maybe we’re not sure if it’s love that makes the world go round or money.
Valentine’s customs through the so-called Christian centuries have been celebrated in a variety of ways. In the Middle Ages, for instance, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their Valentines would be. They wore these names on their sleeves for a week. It’s where we get our notion about people “wearing their hearts on their sleeve,” meaning that it’s easy for other people to know how they’re feeling.
Here’s how I feel about Valentine’s Day, saint or not. I’m all for showering our true loves and loved ones with expressions of affection. It never hurts to let people know that they are appreciated, valued, and loved. As a matter of fact, it’s time for the church to take Valentine’s Day back from the culture. When it comes to love we don’t need to prop up some semi-historical figure like Valentine when we can do better. There’s no better example of love than Jesus Christ. If we love people like Jesus then chocolates will be in order year-round!