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Every year, the 14th February has millions across the world presenting their loved ones with flowers, chocolates and other gifts. In many countries, restaurants and café’s are seen to be filled with couples who are eager to share the joy of their togetherness through delicious cuisines.
The reason behind all of this is a kindly cleric named Valentine who died more than a thousand years ago.
The modern St. Valentine’s Day celebrations are said to have been derived from both ancient Christian and Roman tradition. As per one legend, the holiday has originated from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalis/Lupercalia, a fertility celebration that used to be observed annually on February 15th. The rise of Christianity in Europe saw many pagan holidays being renamed for and dedicated to the early Christian martyrs. Lupercalia was no exception. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius turned Lupercalia into a Christian feast day and set its observance a day earlier, on February 14th. He proclaimed February 14th to be the feast day in honour of Saint Valentine, a Roman martyr who lived in the 3rd century.
Most scholars believe that this St. Valentine was a priest who lived around 270 AD in Rome and attracted the disfavour of Roman emperor Claudius II who ruled during this time.
The story of St. Valentine has two different versions - the Protestant and the Catholic one. Both versions agree upon Saint Valentine being a bishop who held secret marriage ceremonies of soldiers in opposition to Claudius II who had prohibited marriage for young men and was executed by the latter.
During the lifetime of Valentine, the golden era of Roman Empire had almost come to an end. Lack of quality administrators led to frequent civil strife. Education declined, taxation increased and trade witnessed a very bad time. The Roman Empire faced crisis from all sides, from the Gaul’s, Hun’s, Mongolians, Slav’s and Turk’s from Northern Europe and Asia. The empire had grown too large to be shielded from external aggression and internal chaos with existing forces. Obviously, more and more capable men were required to be recruited as soldiers and officers to protect the nation from takeover. When Claudius became the emperor, he felt that married men were more emotionally attached to their families, and therefore would not make good soldiers. He believed that marriage made the men weak. So he issued an edict forbidding marriage to assure the quality of soldiers.
The ban on marriage was a great shock for the Romans. But they dared not voice their protest against the mighty emperor. The kindly bishop Valentine also realized the injustice of this decree. He saw the trauma of young lovers who gave up all hopes of being united in marriage. He planned to counter the emperor’s orders in secrecy. Lovers when they thought of marrying went to Valentine who met them afterwards in a secret place, and joined them in the sacrament of matrimony. As a result he secretly performed many marriages for young lovers. But such things cannot remain hidden for long. It was only a matter of time before Claudius came to know of this “friend of lovers,” and had him arrested.
While awaiting his sentence in prison, Valentine was approached by his jailor, Asterius. It was said that Valentine had some saintly abilities and one of them granted him the power to heal people. Asterius had a blind daughter and knowing of the miraculous powers of Valentine he requested the latter to restore the sight of his blind daughter. The Catholic legend has it that Valentine did this through the vehicle of his strong faith, a phenomenon refuted by the Protestant version which agrees otherwise with the Catholic one. Whatever the facts, it appears that Valentine in some way did succeed to help Asterius’ blind daughter.
When Claudius II met Valentine, he was said to have been impressed by the dignity and conviction. Nevertheless, Valentine refused to agree with the emperor regarding the ban on marriage. It is also said that the emperor tried to convert Valentine to the Roman gods but was unsuccessful in his efforts. Valentine refused to recognize Roman Gods and even attempted to convert the emperor, knowing the consequences fully. This angered Claudius II who gave the order of execution of Valentine.
Meanwhile, a deep friendship had been formed between Valentine and Asterius’ daughter. It caused great grief to the young girl to hear of his friend’s imminent death. It is said that just before his execution, Valentine asked for a pen and paper from his jailor, and signed a farewell message to her “From Your Valentine,” a phrase that lived ever after. As per another legend, Valentine fell in love with the daughter of his jailer during his imprisonment. However, this legend is not given much importance by historians. The most plausible story surrounding St. Valentine is one not centred on Eros (Greek for “passionate love”) but on agape (Greek for “Christian or brotherly love”): he was martyred for refusing to renounce his religion. Valentine is believed to have been executed on February 14, 270 AD.
Hence 14th February became a day for all lovers and Valentine became its Patron Saint. It began to be annually observed by young Romans who offered handwritten greetings of affection, known as Valentines, on this day to the women they admired. With the coming of Christianity, the day came to be known as St. Valentine’s Day.
By the Middle Ages, Valentine become one of the most popular saints in England and France. Despite attempts by the Christian church to sanctify the holiday, the association of Valentine’s Day with romance and courtship continued through the Middle Ages. The holiday evolved over the centuries. By the 18th century, gift-giving and exchanging hand-made cards on Valentine’s Day had become common in England. Hand-made valentine cards made of lace, ribbons, and featuring cupids and hearts began to be created on this day and handed over to the man or woman one loved. This tradition eventually spread to the American colonies. It was not until the 1840’s that Valentine’s Day greeting cards began to be commercially produced in the U.S.
Today, Valentine's Day is one of the major holidays in the U.S. and has become a booming commercial success. According to the Greeting Card Association, 25% of all cards sent each year are “valentines”. The cards are often designed with hearts to symbolize love. The Valentine’s Day card spread with Christianity and is now celebrated all over the world. One of the earliest valentines was sent in 1415 AD by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife during his imprisonment in the Tower of London. The card is now preserved in the British Museum.
There may be doubts regarding the actual identity of Valentine, but we know that he really existed because archaeologists have recently unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to a Saint Valentine.
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Song of Solomon 5:8 “Young women of Jerusalem, swear to me that if you find my beloved you will tell him I am hopelessly lovesick.” (GW.)