Tristin Hopper | National Post
We all know the origin of Valentine’s Day: Some guy named Valentine was working illegally as a priest – an illicit priest, if you will – he was secretly marrying people against the wishes of Roman authorities and for that he got his head cut off. And that’s why we honour him every year with Prix Fixe dinners and intimate grooming rituals.
But I have bone-chilling news for you all. That guy never existed.
Now, there were guys named Valentine who became saints, to be fair. Several of them. There was this guy, Valentinus, a Roman priest executed under the reign of Emperor Gothicus. Reportedly, Gothicus initially just imprisoned Valentinus with a wealthy Roman family, but when Valentinus converted the entire family to Christianity the Emperor decided to just kill everyone.
At around the same time we get Valentinus of Terni. Similar story: An early clergyman who gets himself executed by the Romans. Here’s a super-classy display of his alleged skull inside Rome’s Santa Maria Basilica. There was also a Valentinus who died in Africa.
And that’s about all we know. That’s not me talking, that’s the Bollandists: A team of monks who in the 17th century tried to dig up everything they possibly could on Catholic saints and found out that a lot of them had some pretty sketchy biographies. It’s even possible that two of the three Valentines I mentioned were the same guy.
Another tiny detail: The Romans didn’t really behead people. They would stab you, strangle you and of course crucify you, but … beheading? That’s more of a Middle Ages/Early modern period thing.
In fact, so little is known about the various St. Valentines that in 1969 the Catholic Church demoted him from having his own day. February 14th isn’t St. Valentine’s Day anymore, it’s Saints Cyril and Methodius Day.
So where do we get the idea of St. Valentine as someone secretly marrying people or passing love notes between imprisoned couples or whatever? Easy; people just made it up in the Middle Ages. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer noticed that St. Valentine’s Day seemed to be right around the time that birds started getting jiggy with each other, so he wrote it into a sexy poem. There’s also speculation that, just like Christmas and Easter, Valentine’s Day is a Christianized version of a pagan holiday. Specifically, Lupercalia, an ancient festival on February 14th in which people got naked in the streets, sacrificed animals and then were randomly paired with neighbourhood women for sex.
Imagine you’re a clergyman in the Early Middle Ages. You obviously can’t have naked blood orgies in your local parish, so you encourage people to instead spend their February 14th venerating St. Valentine, and maybe they can hold hands or engage in heavy petting if need be. And after a while of marking St. Valentine’s Day as the romance holiday, people start getting a little fast and loose with the facts around the holiday’s namesake. This is what online nerds would call “retconning.”
Now before you get too judgmental about Medieval Europeans’ loose respect for historical facts, I would direct you to the works of Mel Gibson.
So the St. Valentines, despite paying the ultimate price for their faith, are all remembered for something they absolutely did not do. But don’t feel too bad for them: We do this to saints all the time. I’m afraid Ireland never had snakes, so St. Patrick didn’t really have to banish anything. And here’s Nicolaus of Myra, a Greek guy who lived in what is now Turkey. Due to a baffling series of events, he became rewritten as this guy (Santa Claus).
Anyway; it doesn’t matter where St. Valentine’s Day comes from. It’s a holiday celebrating love. Just buy your wife some candy, give her a backrub and try to be pleasant for a change.