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The truth about Valentine's Day.

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Ever wondered who or what was behind Valentine's day? In truth, the exact origins and identity of St. Valentine are unclear. The most common explanation for how Valentine’s Day came to be is the ancient festival of Lupercalia, a raucous, wine-fueled fertility rite in which Roman men and women paired off. Lupercalia was celebrated for centuries in the middle of February and eventually, as the Roman Empire became less pagan and more Christian, was transformed into a celebration honoring St. Valentine. So, we know how Valentine's Day came to be seen as the most romantic day of the year. However, the truth is, we don't know much about St. Valentine himself. This is where the plot thickens.

"Lupercalia" as depicted by Nicholas Poussin.

In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius designated Feb. 14 as “Saint Valentine’s Day.” According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.

All that is reliably known of saint Valentine was that he was commemorated on February 14, 269 A.D. , that Valentine was his name and that he was martyred and buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Ponte Milvio to the north of Rome on that day. However, it is uncertain whether St. Valentine is to be identified as one saint or the conflation of two or even three saints of the same name. Because so many records were destroyed, details of Saint Valentine’s life are scant. What little is known was passed down and finally printed in the year 1260 in Legenda Sanctorum by Jacobus de Voragine, and in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. The popular story goes that Emperor Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs, stoned, and had his head cut off.

St. Valentine's alleged skull in the Church of Santa Maria in Rome, Italy,

Thanks to the marital angle of his story, Valentine became the patron saint of love, young people, and marriages (and also of plague, epilepsy, and beekeepers). However, there are eleven "Valentines" commemorated by the Catholic Church, and there were at least three other St. Valentines who lived around the time of St. Valentine of Terni, so the real identity of the real St. Valentines remains a mystery to this day. Because his origins are so obscure, he was actually removed from the General Roman Calendar by the Roman Catholic Church in 1969 (but he's still technically considered a saint). But all of this doesn't matter to people today who take the opportunity of Valentine's day to go out shopping and doing various romantic gestures, usually expensive romantic gesture, seeing how in the US alone people are set to spend $30 billion on Valentine's Day.


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