Ah, Valentines Day. Everyone’s favorite arbitrarily-selected date for for showing love as expensively as possible. Isn’t it just another Sweetheart Day, invented by candy companies to sell more product?
Negative! Valentines Day, like many popular modern holidays, began as a Christian feast day and proceeded to spiral out of control. It originally venerated two early Christian martyrs: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. That’s 2 of the 11 total Saint Valentines in the Roman Martyrology.
Valentine of Rome was a Roman priest who was martyred in the year 496 C.E. for aiding persecuted Christians and for attempting to convert Emperor Claudius to Christianity instead of converting to paganism himself. Legend has it that while in prison, he performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of Valentine’s jailer, and converting the whole family to Christianity. On the night before his execution, he is said to have handed a note to his jailer addressed to Julia. The note expressed his brotherly affection for her and his desire for her to remain strong in her faith, and it was signed “Your Valentine,” making it the first Valentine’s card. He was buried on the Via Flaminia and his relics can currently be found at Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, while his skull is displayed at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome, adorned with a crown of flowers.
The other Valentine of holiday fame is Valentine of Terni. He was Bishop of Interamna (now called Terni) beginning in 197 C.E. and ending with his persecution and martyrdom sometime during the reign of Emperor Aurelian. Little else is known about him other than he was buried on the Via Flaminia as well, and his head is preserved and venerated at New Minster Abbey in Britain, while the rest of his relics are kept at the Basilica di San Valentino in Terni. Legends often lump him in with Valentine of Rome. This conglomerate Valentine is said to have illegally married Christian soldiers (It was illegal for soldiers to marry), to have worn an amethyst ring with the image of Cupid on it, and to have given little paper hearts to persecuted Christians to remind them to keep God in their hearts. Lovely as that all is, it’s more than likely all fiction to fill in the gaps in the lives of these two early martyrs.
The date February 14th was selected as the Feast of St. Valentine because one of the two aforementioned Valentines died or was buried on the Via Flaminia on that date, probably Valentine of Rome. At some point during the High Middle Ages, this feast day became associated with romantic love, and it has been one of the top ten days of the year a man absolutely must not forget ever since.
According to the Roman Martyrology, St. Valentine is also the patron saint of bee keepers, plague, epilepsy, and preventing fainting spells.