By Mark Barnes
The story of how Valentine’s Day came to be is one filled with intrigue, oppression, justice and, most importantly, prison love.
Once upon a time, a Christian priest named Valentine lived in Rome during the third century. He was a happy, jolly priest but he defied Emporer Claudius II’s decree that all marriage be outlawed. Claudius believed single men made for better soldiers but old Val thought it unfair and unjust. He secretly performed marriage ceremonies for couples. He may have also been involved in helping Christians escape Roman prisons. Needless to say, he was eventually caught, which brings us to the prison.
While in jail, lovers came to Valentine’s window to be blessed and toss notes to him through his window. He may also have healed the jailer’s daughter who was blind (a necessary miracle needed to become a Catholic saint), or if you believe the rumors, may have fallen in love with her. Upon the eve of his death, he wrote a letter to the jailer’s daughter, which said, “from your Valentine.” It was most likely in Latin, and definitely not written on a SpongeBob SquarePants fold-over. Some say Valentine was beheaded on or about February 14, 270 A.D.
Flash forward 226 years to when Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honor the Saint of romance. But the story doesn’t end there. There are always politics involved when setting aside special days and the fifth century was no exception. The Catholic Church was in a heavy recruitment phase at the time and needed to give those pesky pagans reasons to switch over their gods and fill the pews.
February 15 was the traditional pagan fertility festival, dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. The ritual for the holiday started with sacrificing goats and cutting off bloody strips of hide. This action was called a febratio, which later became February. Then the young men went crazy running through the streets and fields slapping women with the bloody febratios. The ladies liked this because it was supposed to ensure their fertility in the coming year. Later that day these ladies would put their name in a big urn in the middle of the city and eligible bachelors would draw their romantic partners for the upcoming year.
It is believed that the Pope decided it was un-Christian to sanction these romantic pairings and this pagan holiday, hence the creation of a segue holiday, to celebrate romance and monogamy in a happy Christian-like manner.
The tradition of drawing names did carry on for quite some time though. Young men and women in the middle ages drew names to see who their Valentines would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for a period of time after the festival. Today to “wear your heart on your sleeve” means that it is easy for other people to know how you are feeling.
Valentine’s body was said to be “found” by the church in1836 and given to an Irish priest by the Pope. Saint Valentine’s body now allegedly resides in Whitefriar Church in Dublin, Ireland. His heart, however, may be in Scotland and other delicate parts may still be in Italy.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Boise Weekly.