Valentine’s Day has a more violent story than you might expect from such a lovey-dovey holiday. Valentine’s Day commemorates the death of St. Valentine, who was executed on February 14, 273 A.D. Valentine was a high priest in Rome, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, who ordered he be put to death. And Saint Valentine’s death was a nasty one.
Claudius II had a telling nickname – Claudius the Cruel. During his time on the throne, Rome was engaged in multiple wars. Claudius had great difficulty keeping the Roman military robust. In order to encourage more Roman men to join the army, he outlawed marriage and engagements, in the hope that Romans would put down the roses and pick up a sword.
St. Valentine continued to officiate marriages despite their illegality. For this crime, Claudius sentenced him to death. The Roman authorities arrested Valentine and brought him before Rome’s Prefect. The Prefect ordered that he be clubbed to death and beheaded.
Valentine suffered this fate on February 14th, estimated year 273 A.D. Saint Valentine’s death was a brutal affair.
The tradition of giving physical “valentines” to people you like also has macabre historical roots. According to legend, St. Valentine befriended his jailor’s daughter while he was awaiting death. He left her a goodbye note that he signed “From Your Valentine.”
Valentine was named a saint after his death in honor of his sacrifices and adherence to the faith at such great cost.
There is some controversy as to whether this story, which is the standard narrative about St. Valentine, is the correct one. Some people believe that there were as many as three different St. Valentines, all of whom were legitimate martyrs. The other two alleged Valentines were a bishop in Interamna, Italy and a martyr from a Roman territory in Africa.
St. Valentine’s death date is also up for debate. It may have been conflated with the Feast of Lupercalia, a love festival with Pagan origins. During the Feast, young women placed their names in a box, to be drawn at random by the attendant men. It was banned in 496 A.D. by Pope Gelasius, who designated that February 14 was to be celebrated as St. Valentine’s Day.
Most of the holidays we celebrate have their origins somewhere in the period of history when the Roman empire / Catholic Church reformed Pagan holidays. Halloween and Christmas certainly qualify. Flag day, not so much.
Today, on Valentine’s Day, be sure to do something nice for your loved one. And after you give them their valentine, or bouquet of flowers, or box of chocolates, be sure you don’t launch into a talk about what you just read. Valentine’s Day is a lot nicer when you don’t know about Saint Valentine’s death.