The Saint Behind the Ceremony
As our eyes are bombarded with the annual fête of red cardboard, tubby nude cherubs,
and giddy smooching nincompoops set on courting a mate, we can’t help but think: Why? Is there any reason for this Saint Valentine’s Day nonsense? Some call it a
“Hallmark holiday” without any historical basis, while others prefer to celebrate it without really knowing the reason why.
In reality, the story is quite complex. The very man after whom this day is named, Saint Valentine, was a Roman priest who may have additionally practiced as a physician. One of his priestly duties was to oversee and conduct marriages, an act that would eventually place him in quite a predicament. The tale gets hazy from this point on, but one story dictates that the war-hungry emperor, Marcus Aurelius Claudius, demanded a large supply of troops, yet was met with a problem: Men would not leave for battle. They were too attached to their wives and families. In response, Claudius banned marriage outright. Valentine, however, continued to preside over them, and was discovered, captured and beheaded on February 14 between 270 and 273 AD.
Although it makes for an interesting story, the event’s reality has undoubtedly been obscured and romanticized. This can especially be seen when considering the other Saint Valentine, a bishop who lived just 60 miles north of Rome in Interamna (meaning “between rivers”),
home of modern day Terni, Italy. One piece of the folklore puzzle is that this Valentine supposedly oversaw the first marriage between a pagan man and a Christian woman. Christianity was not tolerated in Roman culture at the time, so a marriage between a true-blue Roman and a Christian was accordingly unacceptable. Valentine was scourged,
imprisoned and beheaded as per the orders of Placidus, prefect of Interamna. The eerie fact is that this beheading happened around the same time as that of the other Valentine,
in around the same area.
Many scholars believe that these were, in fact, the same Saint Valentine. It is suggested that he was a Roman priest who became a bishop in Interamna, but was then sentenced for some unknown blasphemous deed and brought to Rome for his execution.
The Bollandists, an association of scholars that have studied the cult of the saints since the early 17th century, assert whole-heartedly that it was the same person, but the official Roman Martyrology
(first published in 1583) lists these two similar entries as separate saints entirely.
To date, there is only one pile of skeletons bearing his name, located in a glass-fronted box at the Basilica of St. Praxedes
One ancient festival seems to have more to blame for the modern perception of Saint Valentine’s Day than the very saint himself: Lupercalia. This Roman festival called for a gathering of worshippers on the Palatine Hill in Rome, where Rome’s legendary founders, Romulus and Remus, were believed to be nursed by a wolf called Luperca. Following a few animal sacrifices, the ceremony involved priests running around and striking women with straps of goat skin, an activity thought to assure the women of fertility and an easy delivery. The name for these straps — februa,
or “means of purification” — eventually gave the month of February its name, and settled the festival’s date on the 15th day of the month Februarius. Another similarity is a particular part of the ceremony where girls’ names were put in a box for boys to draw out. In true Valentine fashion, the two were then paired off until the next Lupercalia.
Since there is speculation that Saint Valentine was killed for supporting Christians during a time of severe persecution, some believe that the Roman Catholic Church used his martyrdom to Christianize (and even popularize) Lupercalia. This would explain the association between the “pairing off” of mates and the saint himself, as well as a possible reason for terming it “Saint Valentine’s Day.”
As the years progressed, the holiday likely became increasingly romantic in nature, which blurred the facts of the actual saint’s role.
Possibly due to the association between February and fertility, the belief that birds found their mates on the 14th of the month became a commonplace theme of medieval literature. Even so, in 1,700 years, our outlook has changed. No longer do we sacrifice goats for Luperca, slap women with februa, or pair off children for annual matings. We don’t even think of the saint behind the ceremony.
Bizarre Worldly Customs
Girls once forecasted their futures by pinning five bay leaves on a pillow, one in each corner and one in the center. They then brought out a specially prepared hard-boiled egg, whose yolk was removed and replaced with salt. The egg was to be eaten — shell and all — and the girl was not to speak or drink until the next morning. During the night, she would dream of her future husband. Of course, the spell would be broken if she mentioned her dream to anyone
within 10 days.
In a complete reversal of American culture, women are expected to give men chocolate. Giri chocos, literally “obligation chocolates,” are typically given to a woman’s boss. Honmei chocos, on the other hand,
are “true feeling” gifts, only given to those who truly entice the woman. Male reciprocity happens exactly one month later, on March 14 for White Day, when honmei-receiving males have the chance to give women white chocolates or other white-themed gifts.
Men sometimes send a gaekkebrev or “joking letter”
to their valentine. Here, he composes a two-lined rhyme but does not sign his name. If the receiver can guess the sender’s identity, then he is expected to reward her with an Easter egg in the spring.