At the start of spring from early Roman times people celebrated Lupercalia, honoring the pastoral god Lupercus and memorializing the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who were nursed by a mother wolf (lupus) at the cave of Lupercal. The celebration involved a rite of fertility, whereby adolescent couples were paired for the year by lottery. The romantic matches would often end in marriage.
During the third century A.D., Roman Emperor “Claudius the Cruel” ruled as a tyrant, waging incessant wars. The army needed men but there was a shortage, and married men did not want to leave their families, nor younger men their sweethearts. The Emperor believed such sentimentality was a weakness ruinous to empire, so he forbade marriage and annulled all existing engagements. He threatened any priest who performed the marriage ceremony with death.
But in the northern Italian town of Terni and then in Rome itself, the bishop St. Valentine continued to marry young couples in love at the temples in front of the altar and there he prayed for blessings upon their unions. The secret leaked out, however, and Valentine was seized and thrown into a dungeon. Some Romans appealed to the Emperor for clemency, and so Claudius met with Valentine to offer him a way out. If only Valentine would stop performing marriages and also renounce his Christian faith for pagan gods, the Emperor would show him mercy and spare his life.
St. Valentine professed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and tried to convert the Emperor to Christianity instead! The infuriated Emperor left St. Valentine to languish in prison. The story goes that during the interval in prison, a young blind girl and daughter of the jailer would visit him. She sat and listened and talked to him through the bars, keeping him company. They ministered to each other, though she didn’t know it at first. She encouraged him when he felt down and alone and assured him he had been right to profess his faith, and also to marry the many grateful young couples who loved him still. Meanwhile, Valentine would pray for her without ceasing until one day miraculously, she recovered her sight and was healed. On the day he was put to death in February, c. 270 he left a note for his friend the jailer’s daughter. It was a tender note of Christian affection signed, “From Your Valentine.”
Pope Gelasius I eventually recast the pagan festival of Lupercalia as a Christian feast day (c. 496) and proclaimed February 14th to be St. Valentine’s Day. Notwithstanding the ancient pagan fertility rite associated with Lupercalia, the new holyday was focused on the martyrdom of St. Valentine for refusing to renounce Christ in order to save his own life. St. Valentine’s Day would not to be associated with romantic love again until the 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem in 1382 to commemorate the first anniversary of the engagement of England ’s King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. In that poem are lines, which draw explicit connection between St. Valentine’s Day and birds coming to mate. The mating season of birds in England starts later in May, but the rhyme scheme worked so well, it fired popular imagination and the connection stuck.
After his death Valentine became a Patron Saint, considered by many especially Romans, to be the spiritual overseer for notes and cards of affection. The earliest surviving Valentine’s card actually dates to 1415 from Charles, French Duke of Orleans captured at the Battle of Agincourt and imprisoned in the Tower of London . The card contains a love poem to his wife and is now on display at the British Museum . Gradually February 14thbecame the date for exchanging love messages and other tokens of affection; St. Valentine became the patron saint of all lovers. Americans began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s Esther Howland began to sell the first mass-produced cards in America and became known as the Mother of the Valentine in the U.S. Today a billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent in America , second in number only to Christmas.
In 1836 relics belonging to St. Valentine were exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus near Rome , placed in a gilded casket then transported to Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin , Ireland , to which they were donated by Pope Gregory XVI. Each Valentine’s Day the casket is carried in solemn procession to the high altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and to all those in love. Other relics of St. Valentine are found at various churches in Italy , France , Austria , England and Scotland . St. Valentine’s story reminds us the way in which love and sacrifice are inextricably linked, and that giving is what you do when you’re in love.