Store aisles once garnished by Rudolph’s red nose and Jolly Old Santa Claus are now festooned with giant red hearts and naked Cupids. Gone are the boxes of tree balls, garlands and inflatable snowmen, replaced by candy from satin and lace boxes of chocolates to tiny multi-colored hard hearts embossed with sayings such as “I Love You” and “Wow”. Love is in the air and lovers are in the card shop seeking the perfect expression of it. Saint Nicholas has returned to his hearth in the North Pole and Saint Valentine’s Day is upon us.
What has this saint to do with love? Perhaps little or perhaps much depending upon which stories you wish to believe. In the Lives of the Saints (Rev. Hugo Hoever 1961), an official church publication under the imprimatur of the late Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Day and the Saint were only a coincidence of the date February 14. Hoever tells us little more than Saint Valentine and Saint Marius assisted 3rd Century Christians being persecuted by Claudius II; that Valentine was taken to Rome in 270 AD and then beaten unmercifully with clubs until he was beheaded. Not much love shown there.
However, he does note that February 15 was the Feast of Februata Juno, a Pagan goddess. It was a custom on the day before this feast for the boys of Rome to hold a lottery in which they pulled from a box the names of the girls of Rome in tribute to Februata. There is a bit more to this story and custom than the Rev Hoever reveals, however.
Saint Valentine may be an appropriate symbol for true love once one considers what got him into so much trouble with Claudius II. The Emperor didn’t have much time for Romance. He was too busy conducting nasty, unpopular wars and having difficultly recruiting men into the army to fight them. Since he believed the problem wasn’t the terror of battle, but the love of the men for their wives and children, he outlawed all engagements and marriages in Rome. According to legend, Valentine and Marius went to the aid of the young lovers of the city and secretly married them defying the Emperor’s ban; this led to the arrest and death of St. Valentine.
Interestingly, Valentine is not the Patron Saint of Lovers, but the Patron of Greetings. This seems appropriate considering the great exchange of cards on his day. Many cynics probably attribute this custom to the marketing departments of the card sellers, but it too has its origin with the Feast of Februata Juno.
Remember those boys drawing names on the eve of the feast. Each girl drawn would become the partner of the drawer for the feast, although often this partnership lasted the full year and many of these couples ended up married. The early church fathers took a dim view of this Pagan practice and they tweaked the custom slightly substituting girls’ names in the box with those of saints. Now the boys pulled a name and that became their special saint for the rest of the year. Hopefully this kept their minds on purer pursuits. Your probably thinking the young men were thrilled with this modification.
There does exist a legend that while in prison Saint Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. Prior to his death, he supposedly sent her a letter, which he signed “From your Valentine”. Take it with a grain of salt if you must, but it makes a nice closing to my story.
Illustration: painting of St. Valentine, artist unknown.