The Catholic Church no longer officially honors St. Valentine,
but the holiday has both Roman and Catholic roots.
The Origins of St. Valentines Day
A quick quiz: St. Valentine was:
a) a priest in the Roman Empire who helped persecuted
Christians during the reign of Claudius II, was thrown in
jail and later beheaded on Feb. 14.
b) a Catholic bishop of Terni who was beheaded,
also during the reign of Claudius II.
c) someone who secretly married couples when
marriage was forbidden, or suffered in Africa, or wrote
letters to his jailer's daughter, and was probably beheaded.
d) all, some, or possibly none of the above.
If you guessed d), give yourself a box of chocolates. Although
the mid-February holiday celebrating love and lovers remains
wildly popular, the confusion over its origins led the Catholic
Church, in 1969, to drop St. Valentine's Day from the Roman
calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feasts. (Those highly
sought-after days are reserved for saints with more clear
historical record. After all, the saints are real individuals
for us to imitate.) Some parishes, however, observe the feast
of St. Valentine.
The roots of St. Valentine's Day lie in the ancient Roman
festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on Feb. 15. For
800 years the Romans had dedicated this day to the god Lupercus.
On Lupercalia, a young man would draw the name of a young
woman in a lottery and would then keep the woman as a sexual
companion for the year.
Pope Gelasius I was, understandably, less than thrilled with
this custom. So he changed the lottery to have both young
men and women draw the names of saints whom they would then
emulate for the year (a change that no doubt disappointed
a few young men). Instead of Lupercus, the patron of the feast
became Valentine. For Roman men, the day continued to be an
occasion to seek the affections of women, and it became a
tradition to give out handwritten messages of admiration that
included Valentine's name.
There was also a conventional belief in Europe during the
Middle Ages that birds chose their partners in the middle
of February. Thus the day was dedicated to love, and people
observed it by writing love letters and sending small gifts
to their beloved. Legend has it that Charles, duke of Orleans,
sent the first real Valentine card to his wife in 1415, when
he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (He, however, was
not beheaded, and died a half-century later of old age.)
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