Who Was St Valentine Anyway?

Actually, we’re not sure. It is generally agreed that he was a martyr who died for his Christian faith in ancient Rome in the late 3rd century. He may have been a priest in Rome or a Bishop in Terni, north of Rome or a martyr in Africa. Anyhow, the feast of St Valentine was started by Pope Gelasius I in 496AD, who numbered Valentine amongst those “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” Which probably meant he wasn’t too sure who Valentine was either. The remains of St Valentine are reputed to be in Italy, France, Austria and the Gorbals in Glasgow, which only goes to show that either he had a lot of remains or we are not sure where he is buried.

Various stories circulate about Valentine. It is said that, before he was beheaded, he healed his jailer’s daughter who was blind and deaf. Another story is that, on the evening before he was to be martyred, he passed a love note to his jailer’s daughter that read, “From your Valentine.”  

Yet another story is set in the reign of Emperor Claudius II Rome, Claudius the Cruel, who was involved in many unpopular wars.  He was finding difficulty in getting soldiers to sign up, because they didn’t want to leave their sweethearts or families.  As a result, Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome.  Valentine is said to have aided the Christian martyrs and secretly married couples. As a result the Prefect of Rome condemned him to be beaten to death and beheaded on 14th February 270.  

There is no way of knowing what truth there is in these stories but it is likely that the church started St Valentine’s Day as a wholesome, enjoyable alternative to a pagan feast in mid-February.  The pagan feast in question is Lupercalia, held on Feb 15 to honor Faunus, pagan god of fertility and forests. 

On the eve of Lupercalia the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars.  Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and would then be partners for the duration of the festival with the girl whom he chose.  Sometimes the pairing of the children lasted an entire year, and often, they would fall in love and later marry.

The church chose to supersede this festival with one more in keeping with Christian beliefs

I was fascinated to discover the unique Norfolk tradition of Jack Valentine (or Old Father Valentine or Old Mother Valentine) who knocks on the rear door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children.

In the 1800s, apparently, Norfolk children would set out before dawn to sing rhymes in exchange for sweets, cakes and pennies. One favourite local verse was:
Good morrow, Valentine,
God bless the baker,
You’ll be the giver,
And I’ll be the taker.
Once it was light, their requests could be turned down because they were said to be sunburnt. 

At least that is better than the custom in my native Derbyshire. Girls there would pray that their boyfriend called on Valentine’s Day. If he didn’t bother she was deemed ‘dusty’ and would be humiliated by her family or friends who had to clean her with a broom or straw.

Being an old romantic, I always remember Valentine’s Day and send my wife an “anonymous” card! Christians believe not just in a God who is in favour of love, but a God who is love. And part of love is feeling – affection, romance etc. It’s a very sad thing when those feelings no longer figure in a marriage. But one thing is sure, the romantic feelings and fun of Valentine’s Day are not enough for a secure foundation for marriage. If we think they are we may become part of the statistic of the 40% of marriages which break down. 

The only sure foundation for marriage is a deep commitment of the will expressed in the marriage vows.  In summary, the vows involve the two partners solemnly promising each other, before God: “I WILL love you, cherish you, comfort you, honour and protect you, in good times and in bad, in riches or in poverty, in sickness and in health, for life, and I will never look at anyone else.”  It is obvious why we all need the help of the God who is love, to make a success of our relationships and need his forgiveness when we fail and turn back to him in repentance and trust.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction