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<<Back to Issue February Volume # 77
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Valentine's Day - More Than Just Chocolate And Roses

By Rebecca Wojsnis '11

Valentine’s Day is notorious for being a “Hallmark Holiday.” This label, however, is only the result of the ignorance of modern society. Actually, Valentine’s Day greeting cards did not come into play until after the holiday spread to the American colonies in the 1840s. Today, Valentine’s Day is about love, courtship, hearts, chocolate, roses, lace, and cupids, but in its origins a deeper, legitimate, and somewhat tragic meaning is held.

Modern Valentine’s Day celebrations date back to both Christian and Roman traditions. One theory postulates that Valentine’s Day is derived from an ancient Roman festival of Lupercalis or Lupercalia, a fertility festival celebrated on the 15th of February. With the rise of Christianity, pagan Roman holidays were renamed for Christian martyrs. In 496 A.D., Pope Galasius turned this into a Catholic feast day and renamed it for the martyr Saint Valentine, a Roman who lived in the 3rd century. There were actually at least three early saints by the name of Valentine, who were all surprisingly martyred on February 14th. Most scholars believe that Pope Galasius really named this day for a priest who lived in Rome around 270 A.D. and was in disfavor with Emperor Claudius II at that time.

There are two versions of the story of Saint Valentine - a Catholic and a Protestant version - both are similar except for one small variation. Saint Valentine was a bishop who held secret weddings for young soldiers. At the time, Claudius II banned marriages for young men. This was at a time when the Roman empire was beginning to fall and was in a time of major crisis. Because of this, soldiers were in high demand. Claudius believed that young married men would only cause more trouble for the empire because they would be too emotionally attached to their families and would make horrible soldiers. This ban was a great shock to the people, but they didn’t dare protest in fear of Claudi us II. Valentine became known as the “Friend of Lovers” because whenever a young couple wished to marry, they would go to Valentine who would marry them in secret.

Unfortunately, Claudius found out about the secret weddings and had Valentine arrested. While in jail, Valentine was approached by his jailor, Asterius. It was said that Valentine had saintly abilities and granted Asterius healing powers that were used to heal his blind daughter. It is in this fact that the Catholic version differs from the Protestant version: the Catholic version claims that Valentine was able to do this directly, through his strong faith. However this happened, it is evident that Valentine played some role in healing Asterius’ blind daughter.

When Claudius II met Valentine, it is said that he was impressed by Valentine’s dignity, but since Valentine refused to convert to the Roman gods (in fact, he tried to convert Claudius II to Christianity, fully knowing the consequences), he was ordered to be executed. While this was happening, a deep bond formed between Asterius’s daughter and Valentine. Just before his execution, he asked for paper and a pen with which he wrote a farewell message to her signed “From Your Valentine,” a phrase that has long since lived on.

The day of Valentine’s execution became a day for lovers and was annually observed by Romans who sent handwritten notes of affection to women they loved on this day. By the Middle Ages, Valentine became one of the most popular saints in England and France, and despite efforts of the Church to sanctify this holiday, it continued to be associated with romance and courtship. By the 18th century, the holiday began to more closely resemble what it is today.

So this Valentine’s Day, make sure to remember a kindly Roman cleric who risked his life to allow love and courtship to flourish.