The Gory Origins of Valentine’s Day

The holiday began as a feast to celebrate the decapitation of a third-century Christian martyr, or perhaps two. So how did it become all about love?

Relics of St. Valentine of Terni at the basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin
Relics of St. Valentine of Terni at the basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin (Dnalor 01 (Own work), CC BY-SA)

By Lisa Bitel

n Feb. 14, sweethearts of all ages will exchange cards, flowers, candy, and more lavish gifts in the name of St. Valentine. But as a historian of Christianity, I can tell you that at the root of our modern holiday is a beautiful fiction. St. Valentine was no lover or patron of love.

Valentine’s Day, in fact, originated as a liturgical feast to celebrate the decapitation of a third-century Christian martyr, or perhaps two. So, how did we get from beheading to betrothing on Valentine’s Day?

Early origins of St. Valentine

Ancient sources reveal that there were several St. Valentines who died on Feb. 14. Two of them were executed during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 269-270 A.D., at a time when persecution of Christians was common.

How do we know this? Because, an order of Belgian monks spent three centuries collecting evidence for the lives of saints from manuscript archives around the known world.

They were called Bollandists after Jean Bolland, a Jesuit scholar who began publishing the massive 68-folio volumes of “Acta Sanctorum,” or “Lives of the Saints,” beginning in 1643.

Since then, successive generations of monks continued the work until the last volume was published in 1940. The Brothers dug up every scrap of information about every saint on the liturgical calendar and printed the texts arranged according to the saint’s feast day.

The Valentine martyrs

The volume encompassing Feb. 14 contains the stories of a handful of “Valentini,” including the earliest three of whom died in the third century.

St. Valentine blessing an epileptic
St. Valentine blessing an epileptic (Wellcome Images, CC BY)

The earliest Valentinus is said to have died in Africa, along with 24 soldiers. Unfortunately, even the Bollandists could not find any more information about him. As the monks knew, sometimes all that the saints left behind was a name and day of death.

We know only a little more about the other two Valentines.

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