270: St. Valentine

(Every February 14, Abe Bonowitz at the U.S.-based Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty sends out this history of St. Valentine as a death penalty victim. Thanks to Abe for allowing us to republish it here.)

Lupercalia: A “Feverish” Festival

We may owe our observance of Valentine’s Day to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, a festival of eroticism that honored Juno Februata, the goddess of “feverish” (febris) love. Annually, on the ides of February, love notes or “billets” would be drawn to partner men and women for feasting and sexual game playing.

From Sinful to Saintly?

Early Christians, clearly a dour bunch, frowned on these lascivious goings-on. In an attempt to curb the erotic festivities, the Christian clergy encouraged celebrants to substitute the names of saints. Then, for the next twelve months, participants were to emulate the ideals represented by the particular saint they’d chosen. Not too surprisingly, this prudish version of Lupercalia proved unpopular, and died a quick death.

Easier to Do: Substitute Romance for Eroticism

But the early Christians were anything but quitters, so it was on to Plan B: modulate the overtly sexual nature of Lupercalia by turning this “feast of the flesh” into a “ritual for romance!” This time, the Church selected a single saint to do battle with the pagan goddess Juno — St. Valentine (Valentinus). And since Valentinus had been martyred on February 14, the Church could also preempt the annual celebration of Lupercalia. The only fly in the ointment was Valentinus himself: he was a chaste man, unschooled in the art of love.

Putting the Right “Spin” on St. Valentine

To make the chaste St. Valentine more appealing to lovers, the Church may have “embellished” his life story a little bit. Since it happened so long ago, records no longer exist. But even if it didn’t happen this way, it certainly makes for a better story …

According to one legend, Valentinus ignored an imperial decree that forbade all marriages and betrothals. Caught in the act, Valentinus was imprisoned and sentenced to death for secretly conducting several wedding ceremonies. While imprisoned, the future Saint cured a girl (the jailer’s daughter) of her blindness. The poor girl fell madly in love with Valentinus, but could not save him.

On the eve of his execution, Valentinus managed to slip a parting message to the girl. The note, of course, was signed “From your Valentine.”

Another version:

In Rome in C.E. 270, Valentine enraged the emperor Claudius II,* who had issued an edict forbidding marriage. Claudius felt that married men made poor soldiers, because they would not want to leave their families for battle. The empire needed soldiers, so Claudius abolished marriage.

Valentine, bishop of Interamna, invited young couples to come to him in secret, where he joined them in the sacrament of matrimony. Claudius learned of this “friend of lovers,” and had the bishop brought to the palace. The emperor, impressed with the young priest’s dignity and conviction, attempted to convert him to the roman gods, to save him from certain execution. Valentine refused to renounce Christianity and boldly attempted to convert the emperor.

History also claims that while Valentine was in prison awaiting his fate, he fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius. Through his faith he miraculously restored her sight. He then signed a farewell message to her “From Your Valentine,” a phrase that would live long after its author.

Valentine was clubbed to death, then beheaded, on February 14 around 270 C.E. during a Christian persecution. In a way, it could be said he died for love and it may be for this that his feast day, named in 496 C.E. by Pope Gelasius, has become associated with romance.

Here’s an official Catholic version.

* Unfairly accused?

On this day..