February 14th is when lovers exchange gifts in the name of St. Valentine, but what has a saint got to do with a pagan celebration?
The history of St Valentine’s Day and its patron saint is shrouded in mystery, but we do know that February has long been a month of romance.
St. Valentine’s Day contains vestiges of both Christian and Roman traditions. For eight hundred years prior to the establishment of St Valentine’s Day, the Romans had celebrated a pagan festival in mid February commemorating a young man’s rite of passage to the god Lupercus.
The celebration featured a lottery in which young men would draw the names of teenage girls from a box. The girl assigned to each young man in that manner, would become his sexual companion for that year.
In an effort to turn people away from the old pagan rites Pope Gelasius ordered a change in the rules of the Lottery and instead of the names of maidens the names of saints were substituted, women were allowed to enter the draw as well as men and the object was to emulate the ways of the selected saint throughout the year.
To replace a pagan god, the church looked for a suitable patron saint of love to take his place and found appropriate Valentine, who in AD 270 had been beheaded by Emperor Claudius II.
One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. Emperor at that time, Claudius II decreed that single men made better warriors and with this thinking, outlawed marriage for young men. The injustice of this ruling forced Valentine to go against his emperor and perform marriages in secret for young soldiers and their sweethearts. The inevitable outcome was discovery and sentence to death.
According to another legend St Valentine sent the first Valentine Card, the story goes that whilst in prison Valentine fell in love with a young girl, thought to be the jailer’s daughter and sent her a letter signed Your Valentine, the traditional greeting still used to this day.
The truth or otherwise of the many legends surrounding this enigmatic Saint have faded into insignificance when compared to the need for a recognized symbol of love and a yearly excuse for lovers to express their feelings for each other.
In 1835 the remains, or what are believed to be the remains of St Valentine were given to an Irish priest named father John Spratt by Pope Gregory XVI, after Spratt impressed the pope with his passionate preaching during a visit to Rome. The gift, in a black and gold casket, can still be viewed every St Valentine’s Day, at the Whitefriars church in Dublin.
The first true valentine card was sent by Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1514, whilst he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In England Valentine’s Day didn’t become popular until around the seventeenth century, although by the middle of the eighteenth century it had become common for people of all social classes to
send some small token of affection to a loved one.
These gifts would usually take the form of a hand written note, in which the recipient would be assured of the sincerest intentions of the sender. By the end of the century printed cards began to appear, due to the enormous advances in printing at that time.
Readymade cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions at a time when strict moral standards made any form of affection difficult.
Today, somewhere in the region of 4 billion Dollars is spent on Valentine cards and associated gifts every year, proving that romance is still very much alive. So I leave you with the words of Shakespeare; who, after all puts it better than anyone: Sonnet 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”