Happy Valentine’s Day!
What’s so happy about it? Well, the cards and the candy and the pledges of love to name a few. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the word valentine is associated with some pretty awful stuff.
First, there’s the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the shooting that took place in Chicago, Illinois, on February 14, 1929. It seems bullets started flying when thugs associated with Al Capone dressed up as policemen and took out seven members of a rival gang.
In addition to that, there’s the story of St. Valentine, a priest in Rome and physician who died c. 269. According to the Dictionary of Saints (Delaney), he was beheaded in the city under Claudius the Goth on February 14 and then buried on the Flaminian Way, where a basilica was built in 350.
There is also another Roman saint named Valentine who is celebrated on this day, the former bishop of Interamna (Terni), located 60 miles from the city. Sadly, this St. Valentine had just as difficult a time as his namesake. He was “scourged, imprisoned, and then beheaded” by the order of Placidus, the prefect of Interamna.
If you’re wondering whether there were really two St. Valentines who lived so close to one another, you’re in good company.
“Many scholars believe the two are one and the same, and it is suggested that the bishop of Interamna had been the Roman priest who became the bishop and was sentenced there before being brought to Rome for his execution.”
So what does any of this have to do with cards and candy and love? Well, according to the Dictionary of Saints, “The custom of sending Valentines on February 14 stems from a medieval belief that birds began to pair on this day.”
I don’t know why a dictionary devoted to saints would have such information, but it is echoed in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints (ODoS) as well. “Neither of [these two saints (may be the same saint)] seems to have any clear connection with lovers or courting couples. The reason for this famous patronage is that birds are supposed to pair on 14 February, a belief at least as old as Chaucer.”
To be fair, this latter saint-oriented dictionary goes on to say that, on the other hand, “some authorities see the custom of choosing a partner on St. Valentines Day as a surviving element of the Roman Lupercalia festival, which took place in mid-February.”
I don’t know what the Paston Letters or the Lupercalia festival are, but I do know — and appreciate — dictionary snark when I see it, which is why I love this next line in the ODoS: “Whatever the reason, the connections of lovers with St. Valentine, with all its consequences for the printing and retailing industries, is one of the less likey results of the cult of the Roman martyrs.”
How very droll.
Note: For a related article on the symbolism of the heart, see “Getting to the Heart of It.”