It's the middle of January on the High Street. Christmas is over and forgotten for at least another six months. The January sales have spent themselves. With shocking fickleness and virtually no respite from sales pitch, shop windows are strutting their stuff decked in gushing hearts and cloying sentiment.
All this lingerie, the chocolate boxes, red roses and overblown cards are a world apart from the remembrance of a legendary 14th of February beating, beheading and later beatification of an early martyr to the Christian faith called Valentine. They do share something though. The overpriced goods and the unknown Saint Valentine, who might be any one of maybe seven candidates and whose name was perhaps Galantine but mispronounced with a 'V' by medieval French peasants, share a certain lack of real substance.
Is there any validity in the history of this commercial bonanza between Christmas gift and Easter egg sales?
The Catholic Saints index lists 12 St Valentines, one St Valentina, and one St Valentinian. Two of these can be ruled out from being the St Valentine of Valentine's Day straight away. Having been beheaded in 1861, St Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, bishop and martyr of Vietnam, clearly comes after all the fuss over Valentine's Day. As does Valentine who was the Pope for 40 days in 897 AD. Of the others, an astonishing six were executed or died in a 40-year span over the late 3rd and 4th Centuries.
This is the era commonly attributed to the beginning of Valentine's Day as a Saint's Day, because of Pope Gelasius I's designation in 496 of the 14 February as a day of celebration in honour of the martyrdom of a St Valentine. It was accepted that there was a real St Valentine; there was just a problem in deciding exactly which saint he was. In support of this Valentine being a real, specific Valentine, it is claimed archaeologists have found a Roman catacomb and church dedicated to him. But the exact and original dedication and naming of the chapel are not fully in evidence.
Of the other saints called Valentine, virtually no detail is given other than the dates of their deaths and that they died for their beliefs.
In the 1969 revised Roman Catholic calendar of saints for universal liturgical veneration, 14 February was delisted as St Valentine's Day because of the lack of verifiable detail for this particular saint. All that is left are stories attached to an unidentifiable or generic 'St Valentine'. These are that St Valentine (the unspecified) continued to carry out marriages for young Romans after it was prohibited to do so by Claudius II1; that while imprisoned he fell in love with the daughter of a jailer; that he restored her sight; and that he left her a farewell note signed 'from your Valentine' before his execution.
Although many of these not detailed Valentines have their own specific days of remembrance, given that in 304, 305, 307 and 308 AD five people of the name Valentine or Valentina were executed for their beliefs, perhaps it doesn't matter that 14 February is not specific to any one of them in particular. Remembering all five together with the dedication of a day to a generic St Valentine is not wholly inappropriate.
The 14 February is not without its own non-Valentine saints. Ten are listed in the current Roman Catholic calendar: St Cyril, St Maro, St Abraham, St Antoninus, St Auxentius, St Theodosius, St Conran, St Dionysius, St Eleuchadius and St Nostrianus. For their belief, one was beheaded, four variously imprisoned, banished and persecuted; three became hermits. If a saint is wanted for remembrance on 14 February, perhaps try St Cyril? Way back in the 9th Century, Cyril, originally called Constantine, and his brother Methodius understood the power of giving people text and lessons in their own language. They spent their lives fighting for that right on behalf of others, against persistent persecution from those who wanted to retain the superiority derived from keeping everything in a language only an educated minority could understand. This is still a valid issue today.
The Sell, Sell, Sell of Sentiment
Leaving saints aside, 'the valentine' is essentially a message or note; these days a card. Gifts in more material forms seem to have come after; an escalation or attachment if you like.
The legend of St Valentine has his signing of a last letter to his love with the words 'from your Valentine' as the start of the tradition. Other suggestions are that cards were a written form of a love song or music used to serenade when courting; or that handmade 'devotional' cards once given at communion or on saints' days were the precursors of today's cards.
Another claim for the first written valentine is a poem penned by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415 to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London. All of this is small-scale, and homemade. The tradition continued into the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. Cards were hand-cut and decorated, often very intricately, with lace, ribbons, pressed flowers, silk embroidery, paint, and such like. They contained original verses or, from the 18th Century, verses hand-copied from booklets printed for that purpose.
The first valentine posted by mail is claimed to have been sent by a sailor to his wife in 1806. In it, he expresses his wish to come home to live with her in peace. The mass dissemination of valentines was enabled by the advent of a postal service with affordable stamp prices. The Penny Black, the world's first postage stamp for a public postal service, was issued in 1840. The combination of cheap post, Victorian sentiment and the beginning of industrial-scale mass-production methods combined to create an explosion in card giving and a real business opportunity in valentine cards.
The opportunity was seized. Giving the love of your life, your soul mate and partner a valentine now takes the couple of seconds' effort of lifting a card from the supermarket shelf and dropping it in the trolley with the bread, carrots and washing-up liquid. And that raises a question: is the motivation now the supermarket pressure-selling, the sense that this is what is expected and the fear of the penalty of the sin of omission rather than commission? There is little care in such small effort.
The post-Post explosion wasn't all plain selling. As the message became cheaper in time, effort, pounds and shillings, variations and cheapened messages crept in. At one point the Post Office in the States intercepted cards deemed unfit to be carried in the United States mail. And 'Vinegar Valentines' arrived on the scene with their mean-spirited verses aimed at the single and unlovely; all a long, long way from high-minded saintliness and with a definite nod towards the promiscuous.
Other Un-saintly Valentine Attributions
In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer, in his in 'Parlement of Foules', wrote:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan every bryd comyth there to chese his make.
[For this was on St Valentine's day
When every bird comes there to choose his mate.]
Some use this to argue it establishes a tradition of romantic love being associated with 14 February, and it being the day on which birds chose their mates. Some dispute this, saying it's too early in the season in England for birds to be choosing mates, and that, given that there are other St Valentines with other feast days, his 'Volantynys day' had nothing to do with February the 14th. However, even by the end of January many birds are already in spring plumage and beginning to split up from wintering flocks and to guard territory. Given that, and the licence always to be granted poets, the jury is out on Chaucer's intentions.
Another popular tradition for Valentine's Day is that it stems from a pagan Roman feast day (of very questionable taste when judged by saintly standards) that the early Roman Church overwrote with something more appropriate (by saintly standards). This was the festival of Lupercalia, in which it is quoted that a young man would acquire a girl for the year by drawing her name in a lottery. In fact, Lupercalia was in honour of the wolf that brought up Romulus and Remus, the brothers who founded Rome.
Two young priests dressed themselves in the skins of sacrificed goats to commemorate Lupa and ran round the walls of the old city in an act of purification. They carried strips of goat-hide and as they ran lashed the hands women held out in the hope this would produce fertility and help in giving birth. This festival was brought to an end by Pope Gelasius, whether or not he used a St Valentine in doing so.
A True Valentine?
Valentine Day's credentials are uncertain, that's true. But in looking no further than the shouting sales windows or politically convenient creation of saints' days before either succumbing to easy commercialisation or turning away in a grouch, the truth that is there at the heart of Valentine's Day is missed.
A Valentine's Day exists, and has done so for centuries, because people have liked to have one; have enjoyed having one. For long after the manipulation of the lives of early Christians who died for their beliefs, and way before the first shopping mall was built, the day has been observed because people wanted it, whatever its origins.
Why? The key is in the care and thought that went into the early handmade cards and original verses. Valentine's Day is an occasion to make a particular demonstration of love, out of love, to a loved-one for no other reason than to give them pleasure. The origins don't matter; the commercialisation can be easily ignored. It is an occasion to be made good use of – whether your Valentine is a partner, friend, wished-for or in-hand, a pet or even a plant.