Who Was St. Valentine? How a Martyred Saint Inspired Valentine's Day
If you lived in the early first few centuries AD, and didn’t have as much historical documentation as the New Testament, a great deal of legend or myth would happen to arise about your life.
Such is the case with St. Valentine (or Valentinus), of the third century AD, from whom we best know the holiday associated with him on February 14 - Valentine’s Day.
But certainly something went awry from the life of a celibate saint whose legacy has turned into a day where significant others hand each other chocolates and candies. What all do we really know about this martyr? And what myths have developed about him over time?
We’ll dive into the true life of St. Valentine and separate the fact from the fiction.
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Facts about St. Valentine
Unfortunately, because St. Valentine lived more than 1700 years ago, we don’t have many solid details on his life. Because, as mentioned before, we don’t have 5600 Greek manuscripts corroborating the evidence and details of his life, as we do have for the New Testament, we have only some skeletonic facts about the life of this Saint.
First, we do know that St. Valentine lived during the mid to late 3rd century. As a refresher in church history, this was a period of intense persecution in Rome prior to Constantine’s reign in Rome in the 300s AD where he legalized Christianity.
We know that St. Valentine was working as a Roman priest during the reign of an emperor named Claudius, as explained by David Kithcart in this article. The emperor’s nickname, Claudius the Cruel, can give readers a hint at some of the persecution Christians may have endured under his rule. What’s more, many Romans experienced some persecution under the emperor as well.
As stated in the History.com article linked above, Claudius likely believed that the reason the Roman army wasn’t as formidable as possible was because husbands wanted to stay at homes with their wives and families instead of fighting in wars.
To combat this, Claudius made marriage and engagements illegal in Rome to sway male soldiers to stay in the Roman army and not worry about a significant other back home.
Valentine, a proponent of marriage, especially Christian marriage, married many couples in secret.
When Claudius II discovered him, explains Kithcart, he sentenced Valentine to a three-part execution: beating, stoning, and then a beheading. Most believe St. Valentine was killed during the year 270 AD, but some have debated whether his death happened during one of the surrounding years.
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St. Valentine Origin Myths and Legends
We run into problems immediately when we attempt to identify the personhood and origin of Valentine. Although we do have a story of one Valentine above – most likely the most accurate story about the Saint – we have three separate Valentine saints in history, all martyrs, according to History.com editors.
And, surprisingly, all seemed to be killed on February 14th.
As pointed out in this Crosswalk.com article, that would’ve been during the month of Juno in Rome, a goddess associated with love and marriage. Perhaps from that arose many of the traditions we see now.
One of the Valentine figures hails from Rome, another from another province in Italy, and the last one from a portion of Africa ruled by the Romans. But the legends and myths don’t end there.
Apparently, Valentine was also able to heal a blind daughter of a judge, the judge then converting to Christianity after witnessing the miracle. Although we do witness many disciples of Jesus performing miracles in the New Testament (Acts 5:15), we do also have to understand that a great deal of myth surrounds miracles past the time of when the New Testament was written. People would often believe that bones of the saints had healing properties, for example.
Also, Valentine supposedly wrote a letter in prison signed “From your Valentine,” giving birth to the tradition of sending lovers cards with the same signature. Other legends include Valentine attempting to free wrongfully imprisoned Christians under the rule of Claudius II, says this History.com article.
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Was Valentine's Day a Pagan Celebration from the Start?
Supposedly, some people believe Valentine’s Day actually originates from a Roman festival known as Lupercalia, a celebration held on February 15th. During this frenzy, Romans would engage in violent acts of sex, animal sacrifice, and fertility rites. Many believe Valentine’s Day is a mild offshoot of this holiday.
However, similar to Halloween, Eostre, and Christmas, Christians took a pagan holiday and revamped it with enriched Christian symbolism. Such is the case with Valentine’s Day when Pope Galesius I eliminated Lupercalia in the 400s and replaced the holiday with a day to commemorate St. Valentine.
Nevertheless, even saying that Galesius replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day might be a myth in itself, writes Helen Flatley in her article.
Although the holiday didn’t originally have eros love in mind (romantic love) perhaps Lupercalia had influenced some traditions we see in modern-day Valentine's Day celebrations.
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How Did the Holiday Get from There to Here? The History of Valentine's Day
We may wonder how a celibate Saint who married couples in secret turned into a holiday in which we exchange teddy bears and flowers with those whom our souls love romantically.
Perhaps the holiday arose out of a blend for the Pope’s call to recognize February 14 as a holiday to commemorate the Saint and the holiday Lupercalia. This could explain why there’s such a heavy focus on romantic love for Valentine’s day instead of the compassionate, caring love St. Valentine exemplified for couples who wanted to marry.
Valentine’s Day continued to evolve throughout the Middle Ages, first recorded as a romantic holiday by none other than Chaucer.
Couples would exchange notes, such as the one Valentine supposedly had, and similarly to holidays such as Halloween and Christmas, gifts and candies started to be exchanged. This was amplified when mass-produced Valentine notes hit America in the 1800s.
Now, like Halloween and other holidays, the origins of this holiday have disappeared behind cards and candies.
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Why Does This Matter?
Why does it matter that we understand the man whom we celebrate, in some part, on February 14?
First, it matters that we understand the history behind the holiday. It wasn’t something created by greeting card companies to turn a profit. We learn from the life of Valentine what it means to exercise civil disobedience when faced with a decision to prevent godly marriages.
And, if the myths about Valentine freeing other Christians from prison are correct, it is a holiday centered around a man who sought for justice and peace.
Second, we do have to realize there are some massive pagan influences on the holiday. As is the case with Christmas trees and Easter eggs, we can tie a Gospel narrative to some of these elements, but Lupercalia was a violent, sexually-charged holiday. We can’t skirt around that fact. Perhaps understanding of the origins of the pagan influences can help us to reorient our traditions on February 14 to better worship God than to engage in a holiday that has violent origins.
Finally, we can greater appreciate how much source material we have for the New Testament. Hundreds of years after it was written, we have a Saint (or two or three) who lived godly lives, but many of the details of those lives have disappeared in history.
Because of the vigilant work of manuscript copiers, the council of Nicea, and other efforts of the Early Church, we have a clear depiction of Jesus, the lives of the disciples, and the writings of the New Testament. Unlike with Saint Valentine, we don’t have to guess about what Jesus came, did, or said.
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Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.