WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF VALENTINE’S DAY?

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The flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine displayed in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome

The 14th of February is the worldwide celebration of the Lovers’ Day also known as the Valentine’s Day. But, when, where, and how did it originate?

Valentine’s Day is a Christian celebration to commemorate the heroism, holiness and martyrdom of a Roman priest named Valentine (Latin: Valentinus) who was imprisoned for succouring persecuted Christians by the Roman Emperor Cladius II in the 5th century.

Claudius had ordered all Romans to worship twelve gods, and had made it a crime punishable by death to associate with Christians. Claudius was impressed by Valentinus and had a discussion with him, attempting to get him to convert to Roman paganism in order to save his life. But Valentinus was dedicated to the ideals of Christ; not even the threat of death could keep him from practicing his beliefs. He refused and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity instead. He was also reported performing the clandestine Christian weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry by the Emperor Claudius II in order to grow his army, believing that married men did not make for good soldiers. He used to wear a purple amethyst ring with an image of Cupid engraved in it, a recognizable symbol associated with love that was legal under the Roman Empire; so that the Roman soldiers would recognize the ring and ask him to perform marriage for them.

Because of these rebellious acts against the Emperor, he was arrested and imprisoned. During his last weeks in prison. Seeing that he was a man of learning, the jailer, named Asterius, asked whether his daughter, Julia, might be brought to Valentinus for lessons. She had been blind since birth. Julia was a pretty young girl with a quick mind. Valentinus read stories of Rome’s history to her. He described the world of nature to her. He taught her arithmetic and told her about God. She saw the world through his eyes, trusted his wisdom, and found comfort in his quiet strength.

“Valentinus, does God really hear our prayers?” Julia asked one day.

“Yes, my child, He hears each one.”

“Do you know what I pray for every morning and every night? I pray that I might see. I want so much to see everything you’ve told me about!”

“God does what is best for us if we will only believe in Him,” Valentinus said.

“Oh, Valentinus, I do believe! I do!” She knelt and grasped his hand.

They sat quietly together, each praying. Suddenly there was a brilliant light in the prison cell. Radiant, Julia screamed, “Valentinus, I can see! I can see!”

“Praise be to God!” Valentinus exclaimed, and he knelt in prayer.

On the eve of his death, Valentinus wrote a last note to Julia, urging her to stay close to God. He signed it, “From your Valentine.” His sentence was carried out the next day, February 14, 270 A.D., near a gate that was later named Porta Valentini in his memory. He first was buried on the Via Flaminia in Rome. It is said that Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave. Today, the almond tree remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship. Pope Julius I is said to have built a church near Ponte Mole to his memory, which for a long time gave name to the gate now called Porta del Popolo, formerly, Porta Valetini. Some of the relics of St. Valentine were kept in the Church and Catacombs of San Valentino in Rome, which remained an important pilgrim site throughout the Middle Ages until they were transferred to the church of Santa Prassede (Church of Praxedes), near the cemetery of St. Hippolytus, during the pontificate of Nicholas IV. The flower-crowned skull of St. Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Other relics are found at Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius I marked February 14th in the Roman Calendar as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom and not a celebration of romance.

Meanwhile, the anti-Catholics argued that Valentine’s Day has originated from the pagan Roman celebration of Lupercalia, a local festival of fertility. They claimed that Pope Gelasius I replaced the pagan festivity with that of Valentine’s Day. However, there is no evidence of any link between St. Valentine’s Day and the rites of the ancient Roman festival, despite many claims by many authors. The celebration of St. Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Geofrey Chaucer’s poetry about “Valentines” in 1382, which was entiled Parlement of Foules: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make (For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate).” Alban Butler in his Lifes of the Principal Saints (1756–1759) and other researchers have rejected this claim: they say there is no proof that the modern customs of St. Valentine’s Day originate from Lupercalia customs, and the claim seems to originate from misconceptions about festivities.

In fact, to oppose the celebration of the Lupercalia, Pope Gelasius I sent a letter to the Roman Senator Andromachus, stating:

“If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.”

S. VALENTINVS, ORA PRO NOBIS.

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