Today is a day that people around the world celebrate the emotion of love and acknowledge the duality of human nature. The date, February 14th has been associated with Christianity and Sainthood since Pope Gelasius declared the day “Saint Valentine’s Day” in 496 AD.
However, the holiday we associate with Valentine’s Day didn’t begin until 1393. A day to celebrate love on February 14th wasn't initiated by a Pope, Saint or religious figure at all. Saint Valentine’s Day the holiday was started by the “Father of English Literature,” the poet, author, astronomer, and philosopher, Geoffrey Chaucer.
In the 1393 poem, “Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer wrote that birds chose their mates in mid-February, “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place and chooses his mate.” Chaucer’s writings were so prevalent in English society that this simple line alone would later spark the 18th-century English tradition of men presenting flowers, candy and greeting cards to a particular woman they had their eye on. With this, the holiday of Valentine’s Day was born.
Now, would it shock you to know that the actual origin of Saint Valentine’s Day as mentioned in Chaucer’s writings, was anything but romantic?
During the 3rd Century, the Roman Empire was in trouble. They were being invaded by the Goths, and the Plague of Cyprian had broken out. Up to 5,000 people were dying a day due to illness or war. The Roman Army was growing scarce of soldiers, and Emperor Claudius II decided that men fought better if they were not married. Therefore, Claudius forbid the military-aged citizens of Rome from getting married. The Emperor was also none-too-pleased with the new and rapidly emerging religious faith of Christianity that was spreading throughout Rome. Some of the Christian tenants regarding peace and unity were not all that beneficial to Claudius’ necessity for warriors, so he banned Romans from worshiping anything other than the Roman pagan gods. Romans who practiced Christianity were considered “unpatriotic” enemies of the state and dissent against the Roman State by refusing to worship pagan gods was punishable by death.
It is during this time that our holiday’s hero Saint Valentine comes on the scene. Valentine is believed to be a priest of a bishop who lived in central Italy. Not only did Valentine refuse to give up his beliefs in Christianity, but he also defied the Emperor by still marrying young men and women. Upon hearing this news, Emperor Claudius sent the Roman military and Tribune to Valentine and demanded that he deny Christianity and begin worshipping pagan idols. When Valentine refused this order, he was arrested and take before the Prefect of Rome and Condemned to death.
The night before his execution, his jailer, a man named Asterius, brought Saint Valentine, his blind daughter and asked him to pray for her. Miraculously, the young girl regained her sight, and the jailer, along with others in prison at the time immediately converted to Christianity and were baptized right there in the Roman jail. The next day, while being led to his execution Saint Valentine wrote the jailer’s daughter a note, and signed it “from your Valentine.” Saint Valentine was then led outside the Flaminian Gate, where he was beaten with clubs and stones and finally beheaded. The date of his death was recorded as being February 14, 269 AD.
Now, before you stone me for ruining the visions of heart candies and balloons that you’ve come to know and love about this day, let me just say, even in its tragic origins the story of Saint Valentine’s is still truly a story of love.
Almost 200-years after his death, when Pope Gelasius canonized Valentine as a Saint and declared that his piety is remembered every year on February 14th his motivations weren’t all that benign. In fact, Pope Gelasius was characterized as a proponent of strict Catholic orthodoxy. His reign as Pope was classified as being one in which he strove to assert increases in his papal authority, and his actions caused significant frictions between the churches of the West and the East. In fact, his actions would as Pope directly influenced the transition of the Pope being a religious leader to a position of significant temporal powers over world politics in the Middle Ages. This would ultimately be a catalyst for the break from the Catholic Church by many people and the emergence of Protestantism in Christianity.
The truth is Pope Gelasius’ declaration of February 14th being denoted as Saint Valentine’s Day had less do with the real Saint Valentine. The Pope's actions more closely resembled the actions of Emperor Claudius II. See February 15th was the pagan holiday of Lupercalia, which was observed to purify a city from evil spirits and promote health and fertility. Now, what do you think a lot of the observers of Lupercalia engaged in on a day that was designed to improve fertility? That’s right, an act that doesn’t have to include love but does involve the joining of a union of sorts.
So Pope Gelasius’ goal in naming February 14th as Saint Valentine’s Day was an effort to combat Lupercalia and provide the Catholic following with a story of righteousness and a willingness to die for one’s beliefs. At the time, the entity that dictated what was devout and what wasn’t in Catholicism was none other than Pope Gelasius himself. In essence, it was the assertion of power over others, and God was the tool being used.
However, what Pope Gelasius ultimately unwittingly did was set the stage for the English poet Chaucer to associate the act of mating on Valentine’s Day, and suddenly the holiday of love was born. So the truth is the holiday of love we celebrate today is a cultural merging of two holidays of differing religions that ultimately resulted in a much more meaningful day to people across the world. The marriage of Saint Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia resulted in the emergence of a perfect holiday that was rid of some of the contamination brought on by the human ego. Now, what was the only thing added to this intermix of these two first holidays that made it a picture-perfect day of celebration? Only one thing was added to the day, and that was love.
In the end, the entire story is filled with testaments that should resonate with us all still today. Beyond the Hallmark cards and Teddy Bears, one should consider the actions of Emperor Claudius, and how he used his authority to decree the dangers of a particular religious’ belief. Additionally, the Emperor outlawed only one thing when he forbid marriage within the Empire. He banned his citizens from sharing with each other the emotion of love and trust. Let none of us ever forget, Claudius did all of this based on his personal beliefs, and the orders were never supported by any evidence or facts.
However, to Saint Valentine, love was so important that no mortal man could ever sanction it, so he continued to facilitate the ability for others to celebrate their love. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten the actions of Asterius the jailer. Asterius’ love for his daughter was so significant that he risked his life to bring her to Saint Valentine in a desperate plea for help.
Fast forward, 200 years and a Pope tried to rob the grave of Saint Valentine to use his memory to secure his power. Pope Gelasius’ actions may have worked to some degree for nearly the next 1000 years. However, through the beauty of the written word, and thanks to the goodness of people, love was finally able to win the day.
So ultimately, that’s the message of today. It is a message that, no matter how long, or no matter how hard people try, love will always win out. This day is a day that represents the actual power of love. It is a day that reminds us that love is such a significant and inherent force to our humanity that it can crumble the will of tyrants and overtake the darkness of hate.
Because in the end, how many of you knew the names of Emperor Claudius or Pope Gelasius before you read this? Now, comparatively how many of you knew the name of Saint Valentine? Love always wins in the end, so let today be a day that you remember the power of love. Most importantly, let everyone remember it actually wasn't an Emperor, Pope, or famous writer that made this day a holiday of love. In reality, Valentines Day became what it is today, merely by the will of average people who took this whole jumble of events that surrounded February 14th and decided to choose love. We'll never know their names. However, they are the real heroes.