It doesn’t take much to notice that Saint Valentine’s Day is a holiday marketed to couples. Every year, shopping malls, candy stores, restaurants, and theme parks are decorated for lovers as merchandise sales and reservations shoot through the roof. Some Christians find Saint Valentine’s day appalling, given its commercialism and focus on couples. As annoying as this may be every year, it does not stray far from the stories of Saint Valentine himself. In the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, Valentine is the saint of engaged couples and happily married couples due to his devout Christian life.
What Do We Know about Saint Valentine?
Outside of his name and martyrdom, the story (or perhaps legend) behind the real Saint Valentine remains much of a mystery to this day. For a detailed account of the many stories about his life, you can read “Martyrdom of St. Valentine” by Dan Graves below. The main stories tell us the following:
According to one story, he was a priest imprisoned and persecuted for his faith. The story goes on to say Valentine was also imprisoned for marrying off soldiers of the Roman army. At this time, married soldiers could avoid the call for military service during wartime. Keeping soldiers from military service may seem odd from our modern view, though less so in Valentine’s period (the third century). Several historians have argued that before Christianity became Rome’s official religion, Christians discouraged serving in Rome’s armies—so Valentine probably viewed marrying off soldiers as a way to keep men from dying while serving a pagan power. However, if married men avoided the military, military numbers would plummet, something Emperor Claudius II didn’t care for. The emperor had Valentine imprisoned for subversiveness. The story tells that Valentine was on good terms with Claudius II until he attempted to persuade him on the validity of Jesus. Growing tired of his attempts, Claudius II sentenced him to death unless he abandoned the faith.
A similar story tells that Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, Italy. Here, the legend goes that he was martyred in Rome and had his relics buried on the Via Flaminia, where a church was built upon them.
Did Saint Valentine Perform Any Miracles?
As previously stated, the story goes that he married off couples for the men to avoid military service. Tying into this story is a miracle he performed during one of his trials. At this trial, Valentine challenged the Judge, Asterius, on the validity of Jesus. As a result, Asterius gave Valentine the task of proving the validity of Jesus by restoring the sight of his daughter. If he succeeded, the judge would do what was asked of him. Valentine restored the site of the woman, shocking Asterius. With this miracle performed before his eyes, Asterius not only proclaimed the validity of Jesus but also broke the idols in his house and fasted for the next three days. After those three days, he was baptized with his daughter, the whole family, and over 44 members of his household. After this, Astorius set free captive Christians from imprisonment.
When Was Saint Valentine Likely Born?
Without multiple sources and accounts of one individual that corroborate each other, it can be difficult to piece together where they came from. The date of Valentine’s birth is still unknown today. Based on the accounts of his life that have been found, it is widely believed that he was martyred between 270 and 280 AD.
When Did Valentine Become a Saint?
Valentine would not be canonized as a saint for another 200-plus years. The Roman Catholic church had him canonized in 496 AD under the Bishop of Rome, Pope Galasius. Eastern and Coptic Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and other Christian liturgical denominations and traditions also recognize Saint Valentine. While his feast day was made official on February 14, it wasn’t until 1969 that it was removed from the General Roman Calendar under Pope Paul VI due to a lack of reliable information. Despite this, it is still a recognized and widely celebrated holiday today.
When Did Christians Start Celebrating Valentine’s Day?
While the official recognition of Saint Valentine’s Day came in the late fifth century, it was not widely celebrated as a day of romance in the Roman Catholic Church until the fourteenth century. During and after his lifetime, especially in the High Middle Ages, the writing of love letters grew among couples of the Christian faith. The origin of writing to one’s “Valentine” may very well come from this practice. Other gestures were incorporated on Saint Valentine’s day as time passed—chocolates, sweets, roses, greeting cards, and jewelry.
Even after the Reformation era, the holiday was still celebrated and recognized among Protestant circles. To this day, Christians within the high and low churches of Christianity celebrate this day of romance. Some celebrate it by giving honor and veneration to Valentine himself. Others celebrate it as a fun and romantic gesture to their spouse or sweetheart.
Regardless of how Christians celebrate and commemorate the holiday, lessons can be taken away from Valentine’s life.
1. The significance of love and holy matrimony. Particularly in high church theology, marriage is seen as a sacramental covenant between a male and female. Regardless of one’s view on the sacrament of marriage, the act of marriage itself is highly praised and encouraged among Christian adults of various ages. For Valentine, it was essential to perform marriage ceremonies for the glory of God, despite the possibility of persecution and even execution.
2. Holy matrimony gives what the world cannot. In Roman culture, marriage was not pursued for love or fruitfulness but for material gain. Women would basically become the property of their husbands and have little to no say in decisions. Within Scripture and the early church, holy matrimony goes deeper. It does not seek to control, own, or manipulate, nor should it. Just as the world then could not prevent Christians from performing marriages based on the writings of the faith, the same can be said today. The culture does not define marriage. God defines marriage through His Holy Word.
3. Marriage is about sacrifice. Many of these couples being married secretly knew the ramifications and punishments that would come out of their marriage. Valentine did as well. Sacrifice in marriage is not just about one person giving up themselves for the other in love, service, and vulnerability. It is also about them giving up certain comforts or even safety nets to be and grow with each other in a God-honoring way. Even in times of mass persecution, hope and beauty can be found in those giving themselves over in love, despite the possible outcomes.
4. It brings us back to God. God created marriage for one male and one female. Spouses who work together to live out the mystery of God’s creation. As previously stated, marriage was more of a transaction and property in Roman culture. In modern secular culture, marriage can be viewed as nothing more than a contract people sign or even a scam for wedding companies to make major profits.
While these are unfortunately true on general levels, Christianity makes it into much more. It is a covenant between two people reflecting Christ and the church. Whether one gets married in a gorgeous ceremony or in secret to avoid the authorities, God is present in that marriage, which goes beyond any contract or expensive ceremony that the world offers.
Martyrdom of St. Valentine
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (listed as public domain)
Who Was St. Valentine?
Saint Valentine, officially Saint Valentine of Rome, is a widely recognized 3rd-century Roman saint commemorated on February 14 and since the High Middle Ages is associated with a tradition of courtly love.
All that is reliably known of the saint commemorated on February 14 is his name and that he was martyred and buried at a cemetery north of Rome on that day. It is uncertain whether Saint Valentine was one individual or a pseudonym for several.
Connection to Today
Today we exchange cards expressing love or appreciation for one another. According to tradition, on this day, February 14, 269, a young man named Valentine was executed in Rome for his faith. But what does our exchange of sentimental cards have to do with a third-century martyr?
Actually, the connection is not at all clear. Valentine was martyred the day before the pagan festival to the goddess Februata Juno at which boys drew girls' names for acts of sexual promiscuity. Were legends about the martyr's death modified to replace the heathen custom? No one knows for sure. In fact, there may have been two or even three martyrs named Valentine who died in different parts of the empire at about the same time. We know little or nothing about any of them.
Take the Roman Valentine as an example. A city gate on the Flaminian Way and a chapel near it were named for him. Several ancient Christian writers mention his name. There is no doubt he lived and was tortured before being beaten with clubs and beheaded. And yet we have no sure account of why.
The Many Legends of Valentine
Some say this Valentine was a young man with a tender heart who aided Christians who were undergoing martyrdom. He was not even a Christian at the time. Arrested for his activities, he converted to faith while in prison and would not renounce it. Knowing he was going to die, he wrote letters to his friends saying "Remember your Valentine."
Another legend says that the Roman Valentine was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius's temporary order and secretly married couples so the husbands wouldn't have to go to war. Claudius desperately needed more soldiers and did not appreciate this interference.
A third legend says the Roman Valentine was a priest who refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. Imprisoned for this, he gave testimony in prison and through his prayers, the jailer's daughter was healed. On the day of his execution, he left her a note signed "Your Valentine."
During the Middle Ages, it was popularly believed birds paired in mid-February. This also reaffirmed the association of romantic love with Valentine's name. Whatever the truth behind the legends, St. Valentine's day has become a day we connect with romance and friendship.
1. "History of Valentine's Day, the."History Channel. (https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-video).
2. Hutchinson, Ruth and Adams, Ruth. Every Day's a Holiday. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951.
3. Thurston, Herbert. "St. Valentine." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
4. "Valentine, Saint." Encyclopedia Americana. Chicago: Encyclopedia Americana, corp., 1956.
5. "Valentine, Saint." Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1967.
6. "Valentine, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
7. Various internet articles.
(Reprinted from "The Martyrdom of Saint Valentine" by Dan Graves, MSL. First published April 28, 2010. Most recent update December 5, 2022)
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Photo Credit: Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons and the Wellcome Collection
Trey Soto holds a B.A. in Communication Studies from Biola University and an M.A. in Communication Management from the University of Denver. He is a photographer, a writer, and a podcast host at T.V. Trey Podcast. You can see more of his work on his Wix portfolio.
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