The celebrations of St. Valentine’s Day are steeped in legend and mystery; indeed the motives behind the day’s creation and even St. Valentine himself have been shrouded in controversy and doubt.
Saint Valentine’s Day embraces a time of year that is historically associated with love and fertility. It encompasses the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera in Ancient Athens and the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercus, the god of fertility.
The priests of Lupercus would perform a traditional purification ritual, slaughtering goats to the god, and after consuming wine, they would run through the streets of Rome holding aloft the skins of the goats touching anyone they met. The occasion compelled floods of young women to the streets in the belief that being touched would improve their chances of conceiving and bring forth easy childbirth. There remains some speculation over the exact date of the celebration.
The first official Saint Valentine’s Day was declared on 14th of February by Pope Galasius in 496, in memory of a 3rd century martyred priest in Rome. It is not known for sure whether Pope Galasius was honouring this 3rd century priest or whether it was one of two other martyred priests associated with the 14th of February. One was Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) and the other apparently suffered in Africa along with a number of companions. Nothing further is known about these two Saint Valentines and it is the priest in Rome that has become the most widely acclaimed of the three.
It is believed that the young priest rose to distinction after betraying Emperor Claudius in 270 AD by conducting illegitimate wedding ceremonies in the capital. Emperor Claudius claimed that married men made poor soldiers and consequently decreed that all marriages of younger citizens would be outlawed. Bishop Valentine, however, maintained that marriage was part of God’s plan and purpose for the world. He continued to conduct marriages in secret between young people, sometimes as young as twelve, in the name of love.
His success gained him unwelcome notoriety, which became Bishop Valentine’s downfall. He was jailed and ultimately beheaded, but not before he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. It is thought that on the evening of his execution the bishop passed her a note which read “from your Valentine”. This story has blossomed into the defining tradition of Valentine’s Day. An estimated one billion cards sent each year, making it the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind Christmas.