Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Who was Valentine, anyway?

| February 14, 2023 1:00 AM

Love it or dread it, Valentine’s Day is hard to pin down. Never mind candy and inflated expectations. Resist temptation to feel jubilant or depressed about your love-luck on this day vs. any other.

Valentine’s Day isn’t what you think. We’re not even sure what, or whom, we’re supposed to celebrate.

Pop quiz: Was Saint Valentine —

(a) A third century priest named Valentine (of Rome) who (1) helped Christians persecuted by Roman Emperor Claudius II, (2) was thrown in jail for it, (3) wrote letters to his jailer's daughter “from your Valentine,” and/or (4) was beheaded — perhaps on Feb. 14, perhaps not; or

(b) A Catholic bishop named Valentine (of Terni), who helped Christians escape harsh prisons, also beheaded during the reign of Claudius — perhaps on Feb. 14; or

(c) A third century Roman priest who secretly married couples while marriages were outlawed by Emperor Claudius (single men made better soldiers, right?), and was beheaded for it, possibly on Feb. 14; or

(d) All, some, or even none of the above?

We’ll never know; the sketchy historical record is mostly rumor and hearsay. Whoever he was, poor old St. Valentine lost his Feb. 14 feast day in 1969, when the Catholic Church removed its confused history from the official calendar. (Fun fact: St. Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers. No idea why.)

More reliably fact is Lupercalia, a centuries-old Roman festival predating all possible Saint Valentine martyrs real or imagined. Lupercalia was celebrated Feb. 15, which is probably why the saint’s feast day was so close to it. Siting feast days to supplant Roman and other traditions was a common tool of conversion.

Ancient Roman festivals typically lasted days and could get raucous. One of Lupercalia’s most salacious traditions describes bachelors who drew the name of a young woman then allegedly kept her as a sexual companion for one year. That may be more fiction than fact; in another, more palatable version the name-draw resulted in marriage if the female was willing.

Which brings us to why Valentine’s Day really is about more than one kind of love, at least before it was called Valentine’s. Mothers who give chocolate and valentines to kids, you are vindicated.

As the story goes, the Luperci, an order of ancient Roman priests, gathered at a sacred cave where Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus were nurtured as infants by a she-wolf, a “lupa.” The Luperci sacrificed a goat in the cave, dipping the hide in its blood. Then they walked the streets, gently slapping the bloody hides at women and crop fields; Romans believed that made both field and female more fertile.

How … romantic?

By the fifth century, the church had outlawed Lupercalia, replacing it with St. Valentine’s Day.

Wolves and goats aren’t the only critters in this story. Europeans in the Middle Ages believed mid-February kicked off mating season for birds, connecting it with romance and thus, St. Valentine.

Feast or fauna, mother-love or romance, Feb. 14 shouldn’t be about how much we spend, but how well we love all year.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at