The Lover’s Saint? St. Valentine

February 8, 2011 - 9:15 am 75 Comments

The Lover’s Saint? Looking at the Origins of St. Valentine’s Day

Poor old Valentine! He was a third century priest who was crushed and then beheaded on February 14th, 270 ACE. He would certainly be surprised to find that we moderns consider him to be the saint of lovers, and that his day would be known as the time when lovers would exchange their sentimental gifts and greetings…. Yet, there are two plausible reasons for the evolution of this sentimental holiday …

First, the saint himself- He was a very caring and empathetic person, and Christians from all over the Empire would write to him, asking for his guidance as they struggled with the issues of daily life and the role of faith in their lives. ( similar to a later saint, the other St. Francis, Francis de Sales) He would write back to them offering them encouragement, inspirations, along with his guidance in spiritual problem solving. Often, in the margins of his letters, he would make simple drawings of the symbols of faith, hope, and love as the most important virtues. Most commonly the shell stood for faith, the anchor for hope, and the heart for love…

After he had been put to death for his disobedience (He continued to marry young couples against the express orders of the Emperor who wanted to end the spread or the future growth of Christianity by forbidding marriage and therefore children…) His neighbors saw some of the unfinished notes he was writing and they noticed the simple, inspirational symbols. They mailed the remaining notes from him, and told others about how Valentine would adorn his stationary with these designs. A short while after, other Christians began adding little drawings to their notes, and the idea of some embellishments on stationary began…

The second plausible reason echoes from how the Catholic Church tried so vehemently and persistently to convert/subvert all the loca pagan customs and turn their celebrations into a more reserved or somber sacred day or Holy-day/holiday. In February, or the time of the ancient calendars that marked devotion to Juno Februata, the goddess of fever and desire which became merged with the festival of Lupercalia. The prudish church became intent on wiping out a rather bawdy and sensual festival.

Lupercalia or the festival of the Wolf Moon – or the full moon of the wandering wolves- was originally a mating/pairing off or time for condoning prostitution. ( there may be some historical connection to legends of the Wolf-Man during these moon cycles- seems quite possible!) For the Pagans of Indigenous European or the Continental witches who lived in Southern Europe ( In the Wiccan or among the Celtics because they lived in the colder north, it was May 1st or Beltane ) this was a time to honor one’s sensual and sexual desires, and the church would have none of it! The best compromise the church could muster and carry off was that this time of the year was appropriate for expressing fidelity and romance within marriage.

The pagan festival included a ceremony where the girls of the community would put their names in a decorated box, and then the boys would draw those names, and the two would become full partners for a whole year- or until the next Lupercalia when the boys would pick someone new!

To discourage this promiscuous practice, the church began to substitute the names of the saints for the young women, as their spiritual companion, and told them that they had to adopt the virtues of that saint during the coming year… And that switch had a rather limited appeal!

With the Middle Ages and with the invention of courtly love and romance, the chivalrous approach to women was instituted and the roles became somewhat reversed! The girls took possession of the box, and they would draw out the name of a boy and then write to him. In this note, she would invite his honorable and romantic intentions- encouraging him to pay attention to her, and ultimately marry her as the final goal!

There is one more legend to consider… The last Valentine legend states that there is a power in gift giving that could soothe or lessen a woman’s wounded affections… That somehow a gift could do wonders in resolving a “lover’s spat” or ending a domestic quarrel. It this is true, particularly in our materialistic age, its the easiest assignment ever given to a saint! However, in this account, there is a twist…

Somehow, this Valentine was also associated with being a healer or someone who possessed the cure for epilepsy, for lunacy, for fainting or swooning, and any falling disease! It makes me wonder… Could this be the reason why we call the process of finding a partner “falling in love?”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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