Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day—the day for lovers—and the least popular day of the year for single folks whose lack of a partner becomes acutely apparent.
For a mystery writer, the day offers all sorts of inspiration. Love or lost love is, after all, one of the prime motivators for murder-most-foul. What mystery writer hasn’t used it a time or two—at least as a red herring?
But even more interesting to this mystery writer is the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. While it is ostensibly the feast day for a Roman Catholic saint named Valentine who died on February 14th, the record is not so clear on exactly who, why, or even when a man named Valentine became the patron saint of love, young people, and happy marriages.
Legend holds that St. Valentine died around 269 CE. This was well before the Edict of Milan legalized the Christian church in 313, so records from that time are spotty at best. The Christian church was still being persecuted by Rome and much of what we know of its early history comes from oral tradition rather than contemporaneous records. So, in mystery writers’ terms, we don’t really know for sure whodunnit!
According to history.com, there are at least two viable
candidates for the honor of being the mortal who became St. Valentine. They lived around the same time—the reign of Emperor Claudius II of Rome (214-270 CE). One was a simple priest. The other was the Bishop of Terni, Narnia, and Amelia. Even the church isn’t 100% sure which it was.
Stories abound about the saint and are accepted as truth—or truth adjacent—for the purposes of celebrating the feast day.
The official St. Valentine, according to the Vatican (catholic.org), died in 269 CE. He was an Italian priest (or bishop?) who, according to legend, proved the power of Christ by restoring the sight of the blind daughter of a judge (or jailer?) who had imprisoned him. As a result, Valentine was awarded his freedom. But it wasn’t long before Valentine was again arrested. His crime? Converting people, marrying couples (starting to see the connection to love and happy marriages?), and assisting Christians being persecuted by Rome. His motive for marrying couples might have been less about romance and more about pragmatism. Apparently, once married, men were excused from going to war. That’s a pretty big incentive.
He went too far when he tried to convert Emperor Claudius II, who ordered Valentine to renounce his faith or be put to death. He chose the latter and the death sentence was carried out in 269 CE (or perhaps 270, or 273, or 280 . . .) He is believed to have been buried on the Via Flaminia north of Rome, perhaps leaving a note behind for the girl whose blindness he cured, signed “Your Valentine.” Hmmm. Sound familiar?
Both the bishop and the priest are said to have performed similar miracles, met similar fates, died at a similar time, and buried at a similar place. No wonder we’re confused. Some speculate that the priest and the bishop were, in fact, one and the same.
But wait. Wikipedia
tells us that there is at least one more candidate—another martyr who died on the same day in Africa. Not much else is known about this Valentine, but since they all are recorded as dying on February 14, who’s to say which is the St. Valentine?
But if we can’t be certain of which Valentine it was, or what year he died, how can we know that he died on February 14th?
As with other Christian holidays, St. Valentine’s day might have been placed in mid-February to help ease pagans’ transition to Christianity, supplanting the Roman Festival of Lupercalia which, according to thoughtco, was celebrated on February 13-15, and was said to purify the City of Rome and usher in a time of health and fertility.
Another theory is that since birds mate in mid-February, the patron saint of lovers feast day was placed then. Tennyson said it best in “Locksley Hall”: In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
The truth about Valentine will never be settled. When, in 496 CE, Pope Gelasius I first included Valentine’s name among those of other saints, he admitted the list was of people whose acts (miracles? good works? martyrdom?) were “known only to God.” No new evidence has turned up since to settle the question.
In 1969, the Roman Catholic church, perhaps due to this ambiguity, ceased requiring celebration of Valentine’s feast day, but it still counts him among the saints.
Whoever he was in life, St. Valentine is known, not only as the patron saint of love, happy marriages, and young people, but also of engaged couples, beekeepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, travelers, and plague (yikes!). Only a few of these mesh with our current, secular view of Valentine’s Day, but with selective editing, florists, card companies, and chocolatiers have ample excuse to make the most of this bright spot in the winter calendar.
So, who will be your Valentine? Let’s hope they are not shrouded in as much mystery as St. Valentine!
Sally Paradysz wrote from a book-lined cabin in the woods beside the home she built from scratch. She was an ordained minister of the Assembly of the Word, founded in 1975. For two decades, she provided spiritual counseling and ministerial assistance. Sal completed undergraduate and graduate courses in business and journalism. She took courses at NOVA, and served as a hotline, hospital, and police interview volunteer in Bucks County, PA. She was definitely owned by her two Maine Coon cats, Kiva and Kodi.
Sal is missed by all who knew her.
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