Q. True or false: Valentine’s Day originally reflected a religious message?
A. In Austria, Germany and western Slavic countries, the word “Valentine” was once used to describe various engagement ceremonies. Father Francis Weiser, in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (1958) notes that the custom in Bohemia once was for boys to send messengers to the homes of their chosen girlfriends to deliver their formal proposals. In Austria, the girls of a village used to await their boyfriends in front of church, then enter church together where they prayed in an implicit engagement ritual; couples would then ratify their intentions by sharing a special meal. Again, these practices were described by the word “Valentine,” although they did not necessarily occur on St. Valentine’s Day per se. Apparently, the reason was that St. Valentine was widely viewed as patron of engaged couples.
Some years ago, doing research for my second book on the saints (More Saints For Our Time; N.J. Arena Lettres, 1983), I discovered no fewer than eight St. Valentines in the classic Roman Martyrology. Two are listed on 14 February, traditionally cited as St. Valentine’s Day. One was a priest; the other, a bishop.
St. Valentine the priest is mentioned in the ancient Gregorian Sacramentary. However, the most recent Roman Calendar (1969) omits reference to this St. Valentine with the following explanation:
“Although very ancient, the memorial of this saint is left to particular calendars, since little is known concerning him except his name and the fact that he was buried on the St. Flaminian Way on 14 February.”
St. Valentine the bishop is historically associated with Terni (about 60 miles from Rome).
Some commentators suggest that perhaps St. Valentine the bishop and St. Valentine the priest are really one and the same person. However, this does not seem to be the case.
The practice of exchanging cards on St. Valentine’s Day, celebrated 14 February, does not result, insofar as I have read, from the personal histories of either St. Valentine.
There is a very helpful chapter in Butler’s Lives of the Saints about St. Valentine. Chaucer (with whom our magnificent English language began) cites the practice of informal engagements of couples on 14 February. Butler’s Lives also indicates that one of the earliest references to “choosing” a Valentine is found in the Paston Letters (1477). (This custom is also recorded in books about Old New England.)
In my own book on saints cited above, I wrote:
“One can argue for some local reference to St. Valentine on 14 February. Doesn’t the ‘St.’ in the name of the observance serve to alert our erring and confused world that the day was originally consecrated in the name of one of God’s special friends?
“Don’t we need, in this age which equates love with lust, a reminder that the greatest love is sacrificing one’s life for another? Marriage and martyrdom both reflect the essence of Christian witness.
“St. Valentine’s Day each year could be more than an occasion for giving flowers or chocolates, or for exchanging cards. Maybe the Marriage Encounter people can help do something about this.”