Even in our very secularized culture, there’s one saint’s day no one is likely to forget: St. Valentine’s Day. But how much do you really know about the saint behind the day? If you’re like most of us, the answer is “not much.” And to make things worse, most of what we think we know is wrong.
In the Catholic Church, Saint Valentine is celebrated on February 14th, hence the Western holiday. On the Orthodox calendar, the saint is commemorated on either April 24, July 6, or July 30. Why multiple days? There are two Orthodox saints named Valentine and one named Valentinus — they were all martyred in the third century. The Catholic Church has 11 Saint Valentines! There is uncertainty as to which of the saints the legends are correctly attributed.
Is Saint Valentine the Patron saint of lovers? In the Catholic understanding, yes. And by the way, beside being the go-to saint for lovers, affianced and married couples, St. Valentine has also been named by the Catholic Church as the patron saint of beekeepers, plague victims, epileptics, and greeters. Obviously, he’s a busy saint. Worth knowing: The Archangel Raphael is also a patron of lovers (if you’ve read the Book of Tobit, you probably can understand why). So if you’re getting a busy signal when you petition St. Valentine, you’ve got a back-up.
Because of all the ambiguous and conflicting information about the saint, the Catholics removed St. Valentine from their liturgical calendar of veneration in 1969. He can still be called a saint and locally venerated, but the removal is a testament to the confusion regarding multiple saints by the same name.
The Love Connection
So how did St. Valentine come to be associated with romantic love? Again, unfortunately, it’s not clear. There are two possibilities. The first has to do with the legends that cropped up about the saint, for instance that he had performed marriages in secret when the emperor forbade them. Also, the story is that St. Valentine restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter and that on the day of his martyrdom, he sent a card to the daughter that was signed “From your Valentine.” While opinion varies about whether there was anything romantic behind that, it might have given Christians the idea of sending similar cards on February 14, and maybe that’s where the romantic connection began.
It has also been noted that there was an ancient pagan festival of purification and fertility called Lupercalia that happened in mid-February. The assumption was that Christians used the occasion of St. Valentine’s Day to supplant the popular festival. But recently, scholars have dismissed that idea, since there’s no hard evidence to support it.
However the association happened, by the late 1300s, Valentine’s Day was so solidly planted in the cultural consciousness as a day for pledging troth and wooing sweethearts that Geoffrey Chaucer, writing on the other side of the European world, could say in his poem “Parlement of Foules” that “this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.”
The Saintliness of Valentine’s Day
But all of this isn’t to say that the role of the saints is insignificant. As the High Middle Ages promoted a new standard of chivalry with its particular code of courtesy, restraint and honor shown to high-born ladies, a new standard of courtly love began to replace the more primitive cultural mores in the nobility and aristocracy, and that was decidedly and particularly Christian. To judge from what Valentine’s Day has become now, you might almost forget that at the time that it ascended from a local to an international phenomenon, the kind of romance that it betokened was not merely carnal or secular. Here’s a Wikipedia entry on the rise of romantic love notes:
Religious meditations upon the Virgin Mary were partially responsible for the development of chivalry as an ethic and lifestyle: the concept of the honor of a lady and knightly devotion to her, coupled with an obligatory respect for all women, factored prominently as central to the very identity of medieval knighthood.
Behaviorally, the manner in which a knight was to regard himself towards a lady was with a transcendence of premeditated thought; his virtue ingrained within his character. A chevalier [knight] was to conduct himself always graciously, bestowing upon her the utmost courtesy and attentiveness.
Would Valentine’s Day still be as famous after all these centuries if it had only been another bacchanal, another occasion for licentiousness or outpourings of pure emotion and sentimentality? We’ll never know. But I think not. I think that the element of respect, moderation, and even spirituality that separate romance from lust gave the day its longevity. And I think that the saint that lent the day his name, even if he is barely known to us now, gave us all the blessings that a saint could.
So happy St. Valentine’s Day!