February 14th is Valentine’s Day. Of course, that means different things to different people. To Hallmark it is a day to send or hand -deliver cards with big red hearts on them and sentiments in them that are gushy. For Godiva it must be chocolate time. To the florist business, nothing says “love” like roses.
For me the trifecta of flowers, candy and card are a good start, but only a start. The hunter/gatherer will also be the cook, or will pick up the check somewhere nice. Wine might be involved, with bubbles. But the history buff in me wants to know – where did this tradition come from? Who or what was the original “valentine”.
Turns out it was a “who” and the day was originally (and for Catholics still is) a Saint’s Day, namely Saint Valentine.
Actually, the name “Valentine” was not rare, especially in olden days. It could be a masculine given name, or a feminine given name, or a last name. It derives from the Roman family name Valentinus, which means strong or healthy, as in Rudolph Valentino. There are several Valentines of that time who have been described as the origin of the observance, but the weight of opinion takes us to Terni.
Our Saint Valentine was a physician and priest in Terni, Italy, in the third century. His date of death was known to be February 14, 269 C.E., when he was 42 or 43 years old. Note: 269 used to be A.D. or anno domini, “in the year of the Lord” or “…our Lord” but now it is C.E. or common era. Likewise, B.C., “before Christ” is now B.C.E., “before the common era”, as the calendar was made politically correct. However, we still have Norse gods contributing our days of the week, e.g., Thor’s Day = Thursday.
As a physician, Valentine was likely credited with some healing miracles (in those days if anyone was healed it was a miracle) but his claim to sainthood stemmed not from his life alone but from his death. On February 14, 269, he was murdered by a crowd on the streets of Rome, ostensibly carrying out the wishes of the anti-Christian emperor at the time, Marcus Aurelius Claudius “Gothicus”, known as Emperor Claudius with “Gothicus” added after he vanquished the Goths in battle. The manner of his murder made Valentine a martyr and became his ticket to sainthood.
Soon to be Saint Valentine, the priest was buried along Via Fluminia on February 14 and Pope Julius built a basilica over his grave. The basilica of Saint Valentine is at Terni, Italy, where he was a priest and is buried. The historians are not clear how he was buried in Rome but also buried near Terni (not a suburb), but facts should not disturb a good story. Let’s say he was disinterred and reinterred.
Claudius died the next year of a pestilence, believed to have been a plague that devastated the Roman population, very possibly smallpox. Known as the Plague of Cyprian, it was a pandemic which raged through the Roman empire from 249 to 262 killing up to 2,000 daily in Rome and five to seven million overall. Claudius has a distinction in his death because it was by natural causes rather than sword or poison, those being the usual causes of death for Roman emperors of that time. It was called the Plague of Cyprian because Cyprian, bishop of Cathage, witnessed and described the plague, not because it began in Cyprus.
Saint Valentine is not the patron saint of matrimony – that honor is held by Priscilla, the patron saint of good marriages. He is more connected to “courtly love”, an ennobling passion where the relationship was typically unconsummated. So, as you celebrate St. Valentine’s Day in your own way, consider whether it will be “when in Rome” or “to each his own.”
We exhibit out “courtly love” in our Rotary work, from ringing bells during the Christmas season, to the honoring of teachers, our work for world health, our passion for books and learning and our commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are not trying for sainthood; it is just what we do – it is who we are.