While the celebration of valentines is called “Valentine’s Day” in the singular sense, it might just as well be called “Valentines’ Day” — as a plural.
On Feb 14, while most people today think of chocolates, roses and paper hearts, the date started out as the feast day of a saint. However, which saint named “Valentine” we celebrate has never been clear; there are at least three by that name. There is also a female martyr — St. Valentina (whose feast is July 25). Finally, there was a Pope Valentine who reigned for 40 days in 827. (He, however, is not listed as a saint.)
Three on Feb. 14
Two of the St. Valentines honored on Feb. 14 have very similar stories and might truly have been the same person. When people started honoring someone on this date is also unclear. While the hometown of one of the two men says his feast dates to the seventh century, any real mention of St. Valentine linked to romance dates only to the 14th century.
Because of this lack of clear records — and so many romantic legends about Valentine — the church removed his feast day from the official calendar in 1969. (This doesn’t mean that Valentine is not a saint, just that the universal church doesn’t have a special Mass in his honor on that day.)
Different dates in the East
The Eastern Orthodox churches are a bit more clear about stating that there were two men who died as martyrs in the same year: A.D. 270. They do so by having two separate feast days for them:
- Valentine the Presbyter is honored on July 6.
- The Hieromartyr (meaning “priest” or “bishop”) Valentine of Intermna (now called Terni), Italy, is honored on July 30.
Both of these men are honored in the Western Church on Feb. 14. And, as noted above, their stories are very similar. So it is sometimes hard to tell which story goes with which saint. It doesn’t help that both were beheaded in Rome in the same year and buried on the same road leading to the city: the Flamian Way.
- The third martyr Valentine, also honored on Feb. 14, lived in Africa and died with several companions — but little more is known about him.
Orthodox churches are able to separate the two Feb. 14 Valentines’ stories a bit.
Valentine the Presbyter defied the Roman imperial law that banned men who had not served in the military from getting married. Valentine witnesses the marriages of Christian couples — which explains his link to couples in love.
The Bishop Valentine was known as a healer and to him probably goes the credit for healing the blind daughter of his jailer. While in prison, for defying imperial religious law, he is said to have written to the girl and signed himself “your Valentine.” This act has led to countless card signatures to this day.
This Valentine also seems to have attracted the attention of the Emperor Claudius II (known as “Gothicus”). Valentine so enchanted the emperor that it is said they became friends — until Valentine tried to convert Claudius. The saint was beheaded soon after.
Poems and birds
We can thank the English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, with letting us know about another link to romance on Valentine’s Day through Valentine’s link to birds.
In 1375, Chaucer, always a romantic, wrote a poem called the “Parliament of Foules” (Fowls). In it, he wrote: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day/ Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Chaucer’s reference is to the long-held English and French traditions that birds — most notably doves — begin to build nests in the middle of February: on Valentine’s Day.
Most of this explains why St. Valentine (whichever Valentine you choose) is the patron of happy marriages, lovers, love, young people and greetings. It is less clear why he is also a patron of epileptics and fainting — though perhaps Valentine the healer can be thanked for that — and of beekeepers. Honey, though is sweet, and maybe that gives us some link to candy and chocolates.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; franciscanmedia.com; the Arlington Catholic Herald; thecatholicgentleman.net; history.com; Catholic Online; atlasobscura.com; blogs.goarch.org; Catholic News Service; and catholicstraightanswers.com