Saint Valentine Wasn’t One Person, And Other Holiday Curiosities

Saint Valentine Wasn’t One Person, And Other Holiday Curiosities

You’ve bought your heart-shaped candy boxes and novelty teddy bears, and made sure that there’s a Valentine for every kid in your child’s class. If you’re single, you’re pining for a special someone to share the day with, and if you’ve got a partner you’re hoping he or she picks a good gift and will appreciate that perfect one you agonized over (or picked up last-minute at a gas station—I’m not here to judge how well you plan).

It’s Valentine’s Day, and everyone knows this is a day for lovers and eating chocolate. It’s an opportunity to embrace the presence of glitter in your home, office, car, and—let’s be real—in your hair. Time has eschewed the history of the holiday’s namesake in favor of joyful chances to make elaborate and often costly proclamations of love and devotion.

The Real Meaning of Love Is Self-Sacrifice

The roots of Valentine’s Day aren’t found in candies or flowers, but rather in remembrance of untimely death in the face of persecution. It was originally a day to remember steadfast faith and devotion to Christ, and martyrdom. Historically, the day was set aside in 496 AD to commemorate the life and deeds of a man who was already obscured in the historical ledger by lack of record-keeping and local legends.

The truth is that Saint Valentine doesn’t seem to be one single man, but rather a few early church saints who have been grouped together by time and lore. The best known of the saints remembered on this day by the church was martyred on February 14, 273, in Rome. All these saints share the commonalities of upholding Christianity, especially the divinity of Christ Jesus, and charitable acts towards the needy.

Details about this day’s origins as a holiday are scant and lost to time. Scholars can’t agree on simple things like which man the day was marked for, or if the different Saint Valentines from that era were actually various retellings about the deeds and life of a single man. It doesn’t truly matter if centuries ago a prisoner awaiting execution for being a Christian passed out notes to cheer others, because most of our modern traditions surrounding this holiday aren’t nearly as old as setting aside a mid-February day to remember Saint Valentine.

You Can Also Thank Chaucer

Our traditions instead come from times far more recent, and unexpected. You might remember the “Canterbury Tales” from high school literature class and their author, Chaucer. What you’ve probably never heard is that in addition to writing colorful stories about medieval scandals he also helped coin a romantic Valentine’s Day. His poem, “Parlement of Foules,” was written sometime in the late fourteenth century, and opens with lines containing the first recorded notion that Valentine’s Day was a day for lovers.

Perhaps more surprising is that many of the more sentimental niceties associated with the saints themselves came from a Catholic priest who embellished the truth and created stories for those who died as martyrs. Alban Butler compiled information about the lives of saints into a four-volume set that has been edited, reprinted, and expanded since his death. Here is where pious traditions became part of the Saint Valentine story.

The shift from a day of reflection and prayer to a celebration of love isn’t a bad thing. After all, it’s love that brings together families and encourages people to help others. Romance is a good thing, and showing some appreciation and creativity in expressing that love gives partners a chance to remind their special someone that he or she matters.

This isn’t a day that has firm grounding in suffering or requires any religious observance, and it’s not a high holy day like Christmas or Easter. Instead, it is thoroughly cultural holiday entrenched as an increasingly commercialized chance to proclaim your affections and undying love.

So celebrate Valentine’s Day by loving up on your family or spouse. Help your kids perfect their classroom-mandated Valentines-for-all, and try not to overindulge on silly gifts. Spend a moment reflecting on the lives of those who have gone long before us, and considering how love and faith are intimately intertwined. But most of all, enjoy some chocolate with good company.

Holly Scheer is a writer and editor. She’s fascinated by politics, culture and theology. Follow her on Twitter @HScheer1580.
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