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Who was Saint Valentine? -- Why is Valentine’s Day About Love?

As a journalist, Teri strives to educate and disseminate information. She will always tell you, "there's more to the story."

Valentine in Glass

Valentine in Glass

Valentine's Day

February 14th … Valentine’s Day … is about love, romance, affection and friendship. Children celebrate with candy “conversation” hearts, school parties and “penny” valentine cards. Adults often celebrate Valentine’s Day with special dinners, flowers, plush animals, candy, perfume, jewelry and other types of romantic gifts.

No matter how you do it, celebrate Valentine’s Day in style! But who was Valentine and why does he represent a day of love and romance?

Valentine -- Who?

The General Roman Calendar describes which “feast” days are assigned liturgical celebrations to honor saints and other people who are specially recognized by the Catholic Church. As far as Valentine’s Day goes, the question of who was the actual “Saint Valentine” for which the holiday is named is a tough one to answer because there were several “Saint Valentines.”

St. Valentine

St. Valentine

Historical Beliefs

Historians think that in ancient Rome, sometime between 495 and 500 A.D., Pope Gelasius I established a feast celebration day on February 14th to honor Valentine of Rome; a priest who was martyred around the time of 269 A.D. and buried on Via Flaminia (a road leading from Rome, over the Apennine Mountains and bordering the coast of the Adriatic Sea). However, martyred Bishop Valentine of Terni (circa 197 A.D.) is also buried on a separate area of Via Flaminia, and according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there is a third Saint Valentine. This man, along with several companions, was martyred in Africa but no further information is known about him.

Saint Valentine receives a rosary from The Virgin; by David Teniers III

Saint Valentine receives a rosary from The Virgin; by David Teniers III

For the Sake of Love

In the Nuremberg Chronicle (created in 1493; a compilation of the world’s human history as it is defined in the bible), the first description of Saint Valentine says that he was caught marrying Christian couples who were being persecuted by Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius fought many wars during his regime (circa 269, 270 A.D) and had difficulty keeping soldiers in his ranks.

Thinking that men who were married would not become soldiers, Claudius banned marriages and engagements in Rome. Priest Valentine was concerned; if men and women did not get married, they would live together anyway and that, in the eyes of the church, would be a sinful act. Valentine, sympathetic to the romantic pining of men and women, married them in secret. When the criminal secret was discovered, Valentine was arrested and brought to Emperor Claudius who wanted him to renounce Christianity and become loyal to the Roman regime. When Valentine refused to deny his beliefs, he was sent to prison. While awaiting his execution, Priest Valentine wrote letters to his friends asking them to “Remember your Valentine” in their prayers.

Saint Valentine Baptizing St. Lucilla by Jacopo Bassano; 1500s

Saint Valentine Baptizing St. Lucilla by Jacopo Bassano; 1500s


A “martyr” is a person who chooses to suffer or die rather than renounce his beliefs. The official Roman Martyrology, a list of saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, mentions only one Saint Valentine. Valentine’s feast day of February 14th remained on the Liturgical Calendar of Saints until, because of the lack of proven historical evidence, it was removed in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. However, some Catholics still celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day as a religious holiday.


Valentine -- Why?

Why is Valentine’s Day about romance? One legend has it that the date of Saint Valentine’s martyrdom, February 14th, became a day to “symbolize” love and romance when Pope Gelasius entered the feast celebration on the General Roman Calendar. This made February 14th a religious observation; thus ending otherwise pagan celebrations of Saint Valentine, the man who had become popular as the “patron saint of love.”

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Another legend has it that while Valentine was imprisoned, children and adults alike would show affection for him by tossing flowers and notes through the window bars of the jail cell. And yet another legend has it that Valentine prayed for a miracle to restore the sight of a blind girl, the jailer’s daughter. During this time, Valentine and the girl became friends --- the priest signed a “farewell” message to her, which said “from your Valentine.”

Valentine Rescues Silvia (in William Shakespeare’s) 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona.' Painting by Angelica Kauffman; 1789

Valentine Rescues Silvia (in William Shakespeare’s) 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona.' Painting by Angelica Kauffman; 1789

Valentines in Art and Literature

Valentine’s Day is depicted in many early forms of literature. Examples include a 14th century poem written by English poet-writer Geoffrey Chaucer, who used imagery of mating birds as symbols of love and lovers to honor the upcoming wedding of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia.

A few hundred years later, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act IV, Scene 5, published circa 1601), Ophelia, in her madness, sings to the king and queen, “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day, all in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine.” In other writings and depictions, Cupid, the Roman mythological god of affection and erotic love, is a cherubic angel whose romantic image is associated with Valentine’s Day; shooting arrows into the hearts of those who fall in love. Cupid’s romantic image is portrayed in valentine drawings throughout the ages.


The Business of Valentines

Over time, exchanging gifts and hand-made cards of ribbon and lace on Valentine’s Day became popular in Europe. In the 1840s, the tradition of exchanging colorful heart-shaped cards led to commercial production of valentines in the United States.

Today, Valentine’s Day is a huge commercial enterprise for global companies that produce greeting cards, candy, flowers, jewelry, clothing and “romantic” gifts for adults and teens. Valentines are readily available for children, too; from the “penny” valentines with basic artwork and friendship messages to those that are licensed through major companies (such as Disney and Mattel, for example) which use their products’ popularity to gear sales specifically to kids.

From Your Valentine

When you “remember your Valentine” on Valentine’s Day, whether by giving your sweetheart a gift of red roses, chocolates, a card, diamonds, intimate clothing or any other “token of romance,” you are participating in a tradition that is more than 1500 years old … the declaration of love!

Further Reading

© 2014 Teri Silver

What is your favorite Valentine's Day tradition? Chime in here!

Sara Johnson from United States on September 05, 2014:

Three more words: I. LOVE. Those!

Teri Silver (author) from The Buckeye State on January 11, 2014:

Three words: Chocolate. Covered. Strawberries.

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