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Forgotten Customs of St. Valentine’s Day

Above: Godspeed by Edmund Blair Leighton (1900).

February 14th is widely known as Valentine’s Day. But were you fully aware that the day is named after St. Valentine, making it St. Valentine’s Day? And even if you were aware that it was named after St. Valentine, do you know who the ancient saint is and why we send cards in his honor?

Who is Saint Valentine?

St. Valentine’s Day is based on the life of St. Valentine, a Roman martyr who was beheaded in c. 269 – 273 AD. For a short period, Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage to keep men available as soldiers for the Roman army. However, St. Valentine refused to accept this error and the saintly priest continued to marry young couples. Claudius attempted to convert St. Valentine to paganism, but St. Valentine resisted and attempted to bring Claudius to the Church and Jesus Christ. For this, the emperor had St. Valentine beheaded.

In prison, he helped imprisoned, soon-to-be martyrs. The jailer saw that Valentine was a man of learning, so he brought his daughter Julia to Valentine for lessons. Julia was a young girl, who had been blind since her birth. During the lessons, St. Valentine would read to her about the history of Rome. And he taught her about God. The following is one account of St. Valentine:


“Valentinus, does God really hear our prayers?” Julia asked one day.

“Yes, my child, He hears each one.”

“Do you know what I pray for every morning and every night? I pray that I might see. I want so much to see everything you’ve told me about!”

“God does what is best for us if we will only believe in Him,” Valentinus said.

“Oh, Valentinus, I do believe! I do!” She knelt and grasped his hand.

They sat quietly together, each praying. Suddenly there was a brilliant light in the prison cell. Radiant, Julia screamed, “Valentinus, I can see! I can see!”

“Praise be to God!” Valentinus exclaimed, and he knelt in prayer.

On the eve of his death Valentinus wrote a last note to Julia, urging her to stay close to God. He signed it, “From your Valentine.” His sentence was carried out the next day, February 14, 270 A.D., near a gate that was later named Porta Valentini in his memory.

He was buried at what is now the Church of Praxedes in Rome. It is said that Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave. Today, the almond tree remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship. On each February 14, Saint Valentine’s Day, messages of affection, love, and devotion are exchanged around the world.”

After her healing, the jailer too was converted to the Catholic Faith.

Having almonds (even almond cake), while telling this story, would be a great way to keep the story of St. Valentine alive hopefully for generations to come.

High Praise for a Low Ranking Feastday

St. Valentine is commemorated each year in the Mass and the Office on February 14th when his feastday falls during Lent (as it usually does). What is rather remarkable is the impact his life has had on cultural and liturgical customs even when his feastday before 1954 was kept only as a simple (i.e., the lowest rank). It was reduced to a commemoration by 1962 and sadly in the Novus Ordo Calendar, his feastday was removed from the Liturgy entirely. However, at least in one silver lining, the Novus Ordo rubrics authorize liturgical veneration of him on February 14th in any place where that day is not devoted to some other obligatory celebration, in accordance with the rule that on such a day the Mass may be that of any saint listed in the Martyrology for that day (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 355). However, as his feastday often falls during Lent, such an option would not exist in many years.

How Authentic is the Life of St. Valentine?

Some have suggested that Saint Valentine’s Day emerged as an attempt to supersede the pagan holiday of Lupercalia, but most academics reject that theory.The liturgical celebration of St. Valentine was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, long before the Middle Ages. If the stories most asserted regarding the life of St. Valentine were invented in the Middle Ages and widely diffused through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the historical existence of such a saint is nonetheless certain. Today the skull of St. Valentine is on display for public veneration in Rome in the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin, which is also the home of La Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth).

The Roman Martyrology lists seven other saints named “Valentine” who died on days other than February 14th, of which a few are also from Roman times: a priest from Viterbo (November 3); Valentine of Passau, papal missionary bishop to Raetia, who died in 475 AD (January 7); a 5th-century priest and hermit (July 4); a Spanish hermit who died in c. 715 AD (October 25); Valentine Berrio Ochoa, who was martyred in 1861 (November 24); and Valentine Jaunzarás Gómez, who was martyred in 1936 (September 18).

Sending Love on February 14th and Beyond

One way we can keep St. Valentine’s Day permeated with a Catholic ethos is to call it as such: Saint Valentine’s Day. In just a few generations, the memory of the saint could be completely forgotten if we cease reminding everyone that this day is named after a great saint is not secular in origin.

The most common custom associated with St. Valentine’s Day is the sending of cards, flowers, and candies to those we love. This custom existed in some form since the Middle Ages as St. Valentine’s Day has been associated since then with romance. It was however not until the 18th century in England and America that the popularity of sending gifts began to accelerate by the aristocratic class. This trend continues to this day even more than a century after Ester Howland created the first St. Valentine’s Day card in the 1840s.

But where did the custom of sending random cards originate? While that is debated, the Sophienburg Museum shares the following story:

There are as many versions as to how Valentine’s Day started as there are valentines. The history is both interesting and bazaar. Here’s one: In Roman Empire days, the Romans engaged in a pagan practice of putting the names of teenage girls in a box and adolescent boys would draw a name at random. The girls were then assigned to live with the boys for a year, celebrating a young man’s rite of passage.

Early church leaders, objecting to this practice and determined to replace this pagan Lupercalia festival on February 14th, substituted St. Valentine, a bishop who had been martyred two hundred years earlier for secretly marrying couples after Emperor Claudius II banned marriage. February 14th then became St. Valentine’s Day in his honor. The box idea lived on, and with time, into the box were put names of saints. Both men and women drew a name and in turn promised to live like that saint. St. Valentine was the most popular saint. Valentine boxes have changed dramatically over the years!

An interesting custom not commonly known is the Bohemian custom of engagements on Laetare Sunday, and not on February 14th. Father Weiser in “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs” relates the following:

In Germany, Austria, and among the Western Slavs, Laetare Sunday used to be the day of announcing the engagements of young people (Liebstatt Sonntag; Druzebna). In Bohemia the boys would send messengers to the homes of their girlfriends to deliver the solemn proposal. In Austria the girls of the village lined up in front of the church after Mass; their boyfriends would take them by the hand and lead them back into the house of God, and thus “propose” to them by a silent act of religious import. After having prayed together, the couple would seal their engagement with a special meal. It is a curious fact that these engagement customs were called “Valentine,” although they did not take place on Saint Valentine’s day. The name is explained by the fact that Saint Valentine was the heavenly patron of young lovers and engaged couples.

We can do our part to keep this day Catholic by buying cards that call it Saint Valentine’s Day or in the very least, to add the title St. to the cards we do buy. And can likewise invoke St. Valentine for those we know who are engaged. And we can ask God through his intercession to help us safeguard the sanctity of marriage and tighten up the annulment criteria which attack the sanctity of marriage.

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