Have you ever wondered how some holidays got their start? All of them intend to be a reminder of something or someone, commemorating the day a significant event occurred or the person who did it. Some are obvious; Christmas, Easter and the 4th of July. Some, however, we view in a light not at first anticipated; one of those being Valentine’s Day.
Originally this celebration commemorated the martyrdom of one, possibly two priests; named Valentine or Valentinian – a common Latin name. One was a priest and physician; the other, the bishop of Terni; tradition holding that they/he was beaten and beheaded along the Flaminian Way in Rome, Italy, on or around Feb. 14, in the year 269 A.D. The exact date is debated by some scholars, possibly chosen by church authorities to counteract the pagan festival of Lupercalia; honoring an ancient fertility deity which was observed at about this time of year as well. During this highly-charged and sexualized festival, a lottery was held where a person’s companion or mate for the following year was drawn. The English, among others, continued this practice, however altered in later years, whereby young women’s names were drawn by chivalrous young men; then after his selected “Valentine” was made known to him, he was expected to watch after, protect and care for her over the next year. Occasionally this arrangement did indeed develop into a loving relationship and marriage. The tradition was further modified when the lottery slips had the names of saints written on them, the person drawing a particular Saint’s name then being expected to emulate the life of that saint over the next twelve months. (It being a common early church practice to cleanse and Christianize a pagan celebration with a Christian observance where the dates were the same or similar.)
With the passage of time, “Valentine” became commonly regarded as the patron saint of lovers and the observance of Feb. 14 has become one of our most widely observed unofficial holidays celebrated by the exchange of cards, candy, and other gifts. (The irony being that our present celebration has again become quite sexualized as was the pagan festival it was meant, in part, to replace.) How did that come about and where do Valentine cards specifically come from? Valentine was killed during the persecution ordered by Claudius the Goth, having angered the Emperor by continuing to marry young couples, sometimes in secret – in direct defiance of the Emperor’s order to stop doing so. It seems the practice of settling down with a wife and raising a family was making it difficult to recruit young men for the armies of Rome, the church’s growing influence and civilizing impact challenging the all-encompassing authority of the Roman government as it, in turn, attempted to regulate the allegiance and behavior of its populace. Valentine was imprisoned for some time before his trial and eventual death sentence, and while incarcerated sent cards and letters to his friends and followers signed – From your Valentine.
One in particular, to a young and beautiful woman, may have been significant as it seems to indicate Valentine was indeed falling in love with her. Sadly he lost his head to the governing authorities before anything more permanent could come of the relationship; yet from this man of God, who resisted a king but “fell” for a woman, arose the tradition of exchanging affectionate messages and romantic gifts.
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