Valentine's Day is getting a little worn out, if you ask me. Maybe the greeting card, floral and candy industries have squeezed as much revenue out of the holiday as they were going to, and now have moved on to more modern ideas, such as Galentine's Day. Traditions come and go, and I applaud any reason to get together and have fun with friends, but really, what's the deal with Valentine's Day in the first place?
Let's try martyrdom, enshrined skulls, and really old English poems. Ready?
As it so happens, the answer varies some based on where you live in the world. Generally speaking, the overall cultural consensus seems to be that Saint Valentine was a good-hearted Roman priest (or perhaps an amalgamation of two different good-hearted Roman priests) who reportedly helped persecuted Christians, and for this kind deed was executed circa 270 AD. So there you go. I bet old Saint Valentine would be shocked, and hopefully pleased, to be commemorated with roses and chocolate every year! His remains (or the remains of the two different Saint Valentines, perhaps) are enshrined separately in Rome and Dublin (see photos at right).
Whether Saint Valentine was one man or two, the legend persisted through the centuries, and spread to many different cultures over time.
(And you know I like to study folklore, so I find all the varying legends fascinating.)
The bit about his transformation from martyr to the patron saint of love is quite intriguing. It evidently tracks back to a healing that one (or the other) of the Saint Valentines performed the night before his execution, in which he healed Julia, the blind daughter of his jailor. Legend has it that Julia subsequently planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave (the one in Rome, apparently), which was viewed as a symbol of love and friendship. Another legend suggests that Saint Valentine performed marriages for Roman soldiers, who by law were not allowed to marry at the time.
In 1382, we find Chaucer rhapsodizing in ye olde English about Saint Valentine in his poem, Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Birds):
These lines bring up another interesting role Saint Valentine played in history, that of the patron saint of spring. According to Slovenian folklore, flowers begin to grow on Saint Valentine's Day, and the birds propose to one another. How cute, right? So if you're like me and pretty much OVER winter come Valentine's Day, you can look out your window at all the little birds hopping around, and imagine that they're proposing in preparation for spring. Euery bryd comyth there to chese his make, and it could be happening right in your back yard! Makes winter a little less dreary.
It seems that exchanging Valentines Day cards became popular in England during the late 18th century, and became all the rage during the Victorian era as postage became cheaper, and the custom of mailing Valentines came into vogue. The Victorians also popularized the custom of exchanging flowers, particularly red roses. In 1868, the British chocolate company Cadbury introduced heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates (for which I wholeheartedly applaud them).
Folklore is fascinating because with each and every generation, the story gets embellished a little, usually for the better, and the legend of Saint Valentine is no exception! The Catholic shrines in Rome and Dublin came as a surprise to me (I'm part Irish, so I found the custom of going on pilgrimage to a shrine with bits of a dead saint in order to pray for true love absolutely fascinating. I wonder if it works? It at least gives single people a fun reason to visit Dublin, I guess...).
True love can be elusive at best, and for those of us lucky enough to find it, we can all thank our patron Saint Valentine. (And if y'all try praying at the shrine in Dublin, let me know if it works for you!)