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I’ve always loved Valentine’s Day: not for its romantic significance, but because it is a lovely little bonus holiday, which never brings any stress with it . . . not to me, anyway. To me, it is a celebration of love in all of its forms. And since my birthday is in late February, Valentine’s Day always seems to make my birthday begin sooner and last longer.
But it’s funny, as much as I enjoy the holiday, I never gave much thought to who this “Valentine” was (was he even a real person?) or how he came to be the patron saint of lovers. I thought it was time to do some research. . . .
I learned that, yes, he was a real person whose real name was “Valentinus of Terni.” Born in Italy in 226 AD, he was a doctor who later became a Catholic priest during the reign of Emperor Claudius the Second.
The emperor presented some big problems for Valentine. First: he persecuted the church. Second: because he wanted to build up the Roman Army, he made it illegal for young men to marry. (He believed unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because they didn’t have worries over what might happen to their wives and children if they were killed, and he believed unmarried men were more likely to be recruited as soldiers.) Valentine, following the tradition of his faith, encouraged young people to marry, and he performed the forbidden marriage ceremonies in secret. Eventually he was caught, imprisoned and tortured for disobeying the emperor’s command.
While Valentine was being held under house arrest by a judge named Asterius, the two became friends. The judge had a daughter named Julia, who was blind. Because the judge was impressed by Valentine’s wisdom, he asked him to help Julia with her schoolwork. Valentine and Julia became good friends, and this led to a miracle: he prayed for to regain her sight, and she did!
Because Valentine continued to defy Emperor Claudius by not backing away from his stand for marriage, and by refusing to renounce his faith, he was sentenced to death.
On February 14, 269 AD, Valentine was put to death via a three-part execution: first he was beaten, then stoned, and finally, decapitated.
His last written words were found in a letter he wrote to Julia, which he signed,
“From Your Valentine”
So, you might wonder, how did we get from the story of a doctor/priest who performed clandestine marriages and prayed for blind eyes to be healed, to the establishment of a holiday celebrating love?
Well, the church honored Valentine’s memory by naming him a saint, and in 496 AD his yearly feast day was established: February 14th, the anniversary of his death. But the holiday was not linked to romantic love until around 1375, when a poem written by the English poet, Goeffrey Chaucer, became widely read. In the poem, called “Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer refers to Saint Valentine’s Day as the day when birds (and by implication, humans) come together to find a mate.
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day /
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
People loved Chaucer’s poem and quickly latched onto Valentine’s Day as a day to celebrate romance.
Although few people remember those words by Chaucer, the famous last words of St. Valentine have been written on countless declarations of affection for more than 600 years, what a beautiful legacy for a remarkable man of honor and faith, and love.
Photo by Jill Wellington via Pixabay
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