It’s that day of the year again when the chocolate sales spike up, and couples dine in expensive restaurants, get bouquets of flowers, buy pieces of jewelry, and other sorts of gifts are handed out like hotcakes. Ah, love is in the air, and romance blooms in the sighs of lovers embracing. One could almost see Cupid buzzing around shooting his arrows into folks. The tradition of celebrating Valentine’s Day goes way back to around 270 A.D,  when a priest named Valentine was bludgeoned to death and beheaded after defying Emperor Marcus Aurelius Claudius’ order to ban marriage ceremonies. It was a long-winding journey before a gruesome death turned into a day of sweets and roses.

Claudius The Cruel

Aureus of Emperor Claudius. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.comCC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s get to know Emperor Claudius II “Gothicus” first, whom, if not for his belief that Roman soldiers fight better when unmarried, we might not have this tradition. He was not called “Claudius the Cruel” for nothing, and he lived by his name. He was the first of what was known as “soldier emperors” who earned their position, not through their line of the distinguished family name but rather by their military career and the favor of the Praetorian Guard. Cladius earned the military’s respect by being physically strong and especially cruel. Legends say he once knocked off a horse’s teeth just with one punch. During his time, the Romans were involved in many bloody campaigns in an effort to save the Roman Empire from threats of invasions left and right— there was the Battle of Naissus and the Battle of Lake Benacus, among the others. He, of course, had to maintain a strong army to win these wars, but he encountered a problem. His dream of powerful soldiers encountered a hiccup because men refused to join the army, not wanting to be far away from their wives and families. Emperor Claudius’ brilliant solution, instead of convincing them that these battles were worth fighting for, decided to ban all marriages and engagement in the entirety of Rome. It was also an age of persecution of the Christians, which Rome eyed with suspicion as a threat to the Imperial order and its placement of the Emperor as a living God.  The Christians were generally peaceful but would rather die than perform the annual public act of burning incense and make a sacrifice to the Emperor in obedience.

Saint Valentine To The Rescue

According to History.com, there were three saints named Valentine or Valentinus that were considered the Saint Valentine of Valentine’s Day. All were said to be martyred— one was a priest in Rome, the other was a bishop from Italy(these two were probably different accounts of the same person), and the last was from the Roman province of Africa. One reason for the confusion was that Valentinius was a popular name in ancient Rome. In fact, there were 50 saints named Valentine. Whichever it was, here’s one of the popular stories:

Upon hearing Claudius the Cruel’s order to ban marriage, Valentine felt that it was unfair. Because he believed in the sanctity of the ceremony among Christians, he decided to go against it and secretly performed marriages for young couples. Unfortunately, it was discovered, and he was dragged to prison with Claudius’ order to have his head cut off.

Saint Valentine. (Wikimedia Commons)

While in jail, he was said to have made friends with a jailer’s daughter to whom he sent a letter before he was executed and signed it “From Your Valentine.” Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church of The Mother of God wrote a slightly different version:

“While in prison, St. Valentine continued to minister, even witnessing to those who guarded him. One of the guards was a good man who had adopted a blind girl. He asked St. Valentine if his God could help his daughter. Valentine prayed and the girl was miraculously given her sight, demonstrating the power of the One True God. The guard and his whole family, 46 people in all, converted to Christianity and were baptized. The emperor was furious about this, so he had St. Valentine beheaded.”

He was beheaded on February 14 and was later proclaimed a saint for what he did. At least that’s what the story taught.

Christianizing Lupercalia

Another possible origin was that the Christians decided to place Valentine’s Day on February 14th in time for the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, in an effort to Christianize it. After a ceremony involving slapping women lightly with goat hides, believing that this makes them more fertile, all the young women’s names would be written and placed in a big urn. Then the men would choose a name from the urn, like a raffle drawing(The ancient Match.comodus?). They would then be paired together for a year and would often end up being married. By the 5th century, the celebration was deemed un-Christian, so it was stopped. Pope Gelasius then declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day. Coincidentally, it was believed that it was also the date of the birds’ mating season in France and England, adding to its association with romance.

It was English Poet Jeffrey Chaucer who popularized the day as a romantic celebration. In his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” he wrote:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,

Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,

Of every kinde, that men thynke may;

And that so huge a noyse gan they make,

That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake

So ful was, that unnethe was ther space

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For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

In 1415, Duke of Orleans Charles wrote a Valentine poem for his wife while he was imprisoned after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt. By the 17th century, countries like the United States, Canada, Mexico, the UK, France, and Australia began to celebrate Valentine’s Day widely. So the Valentine’s Day traditional celebration in America comes from England where February 14th became the day when men took quill in hand and wrote letters of undying love to their sweethearts while it is also celebrated in different ways in other Christian Nations. By the 1800s, the Commerical Age allowed the exchange of flowers, pre-printed cards, candies, and other gifts bought from gaily decorated storefront windows.

So Happy Valentine’s Day to you all but just remember, it’s just a silly kind of romantic holiday and nothing to lose your head over.

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