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[Bishop marrying couple, from The Book of St. Valentine. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1908. [public domain]]

Today we send and receive cards with messages such as “Be my Valentine” or “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Poems and verses of love and affection also find their way into the day’s exchanges. The practice has various explanations, none of them entirely convincing. 

The easy part is to explain how the day got its name. A Roman martyr named Valentine was tortured, beaten with clubs, and finally beheaded on this day, 14 February 269. Although we don’t know for sure why he was executed or even if he was a Christian before his arrest, Pope Gelasius I (492–496) included him in a feast day in the church calendar. Christians also named a city gate on the Flaminian Way for Valentine and a nearby chapel, too. Several early Christian writers mentioned him.

A feast remembering a cruel death hardly seems a valid reason to exchange expressions of love. One explanation commonly offered has to do with the timing of Valentine’s death. Allegedly in the third-century, Romans observed a pagan festival in mid-February to the goddess Februata Juno, at which boys drew girls’ names for acts of sexual promiscuity. The practice hung on after Christianity took hold. To divert the custom into a more innocent expression, church leaders may have embellished Valentine’s story to give it a romantic twist and at the same time leaven the day with a tinge of holiness.

In keeping with that, one persistent legend makes Valentine a priest who secretly married couples in defiance of a temporary imperial ban on marriages. Emperor Claudius II needed soldiers—but husbands were exempt from induction. Naturally the emperor punished Valentine’s disobedience.

Perhaps Thomas William Parsons had the above explanation in mind when he wrote,

This day was sacred, once, to Pan, 
And Kept with song and wine;
But when our better creed began 
’Twas held no more divine,
Until there came a holy man, 
One Bishop Valentine.
He, finding, as all good men will, 
Much in the ancient way
That was not altogether ill, 
Restored the genial day;
And we the pagan fashion still 
With pious hearts obey.

The account of Valentine as a priest who defied an imperial edict is more likely than the claim that Valentine assisted persecuted Christians and therefore was condemned himself. Knowing he was going to die, he wrote letters to his friends saying “Remember your Valentine.” The problem with this version is that Claudius is not known for killing Christians.

A third explanation also runs into the problem that Claudius was not a persecutor of Christians. This legend makes Valentine a priest who refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. Imprisoned, he witnessed for Christ in prison. Through his prayers the jailer’s daughter was healed. On the day of his execution he left her a note signed “Your Valentine.” 

We will probably never know with certainty why Valentine perished or why we exchange cards and candies in his name. Nonetheless it will probably remain a day of romance and friendship into the foreseeable future.

Dan Graves

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Learn more about Valentine at RedeemTV's The First Valentine, in which a thirteen-year-old girl time travels to meet Valentine and his friends. You can also get The First Valentine, at Vision either DVD or digital download.

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