Of all our celebrations Valentine’s Day may be one of the most obscure in its origin. It is shrouded in mystery and legend, but one thing is sure: It did not start off as a day of expressing love for anyone.
In the 3rd century, there was a Roman priest by the name of Valentinus. Claudius II was emperor and Christianity was still the center of persecution. In 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in which he declared religious tolerance for everyone and in 325 at the Council of Nicaea he proclaimed Christianity as the official Roman religion. All that came too late for Valentinus.
In addition to preaching Christianity, Valentinus had performed marriages between Christians, an illegal act in the eyes of Rome. He was arrested, jailed, and ordered to stop his preaching. He continued and converted many of his jailers. Legend has it that Valentinus cured blindness in the daughter of one of his captors. Word got around and Claudius had him brought in for a conversation. He must have had a forceful personality because Claudius was impressed by him, but ordered him to stop preaching in the jail. Valentinus didn’t even wait until he got back to jail; he tried to convert Claudius right there. That was a bad idea. Back to his cell he went and continued what was the first Christian jail ministry. Failing to obey the emperor was a capital offense so Claudius condemned him to death. Beatings failed to kill Valentinus so he was sentenced to beheading. On the night before his execution, he wrote a note to the now-healed jailer’s daughter and signed it, “From your Valentine.”
In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I named Valentinus as a Christian martyr and he was later canonized. In 1969 he was removed from the list of saints because there was no verifiable historical data about him other than he had been executed on February 14, probably in 270.
How the romantic attachment to Valentine’s Day originated is another story. It wasn’t until the 14th century that it began to develop its modern connotation of love. Jack Oruch, a scholar at University of Kansas, traces it back to Chaucer. In 1382 Geoffrey wrote, “For this was Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose its mate.” Prior to that, the day had been regarded as a day of sacrifice. The line is taken from Chaucer’s poem honoring the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. The marriage was not about love, as royal weddings never were, but about a treaty. The bride and groom were both 15 years old, so Chaucer took some literary license to add love to a political ploy. Further, no bird in its right mind ever mated in February in England, but the idea of romance stuck.
As a cardiologist, I have been interested in the heart as an icon. It has long been considered the source of passion and love. From ancient times everyone thought the heart was where life lived. In the history of romance no one ever said, “I love you from the bottom of my liver,” or “You broke my gall bladder!” It’s always about the heart. Certainly, from an anatomical point of view, it’s not very romantic looking. There are all sorts of ideas about how it came to its Valentine shape. Some are not appropriate for a family newspaper and I will leave the reader to work through that. The one that especially appeals to me is the courtship of swans. If you have ever watched that you see a perfect heart-shape form between them as they swim toward one another until their beaks touch. After that it gets pretty frantic but you get the idea.
How much candy is sold on February 14th? Millions of tons, I would guess. Flowers—the second best day of the year for florists (Mother’s day is #1). Cards by the hundreds of millions. More red jello desserts than I care to contemplate. Special times at school. We can all remember the loving card from “Guess Who?” hoping it was the best looking girl in the room. Some children would get cards from everyone in the class; others would send themselves a card just to be sure they had one. It was not always a happy time for some kids. There were always a few perversions of “Roses are red, Violets are blue . . . .” ending with an insult. I hope elementary schools now have a policy about that.
Back to poor St. Valentine and his execution! The real story is not known, but this year I’ll think about King Richard and Anne of Bohemia. I hope they lived in love and we can do the same. Happy Valentine’s day to all!