Though we often associate Valentine’s Day with the warm fuzzies of hearts, flowers, and chocolates, its origins are distinctly more serious and heroic than most people realize.
Information about St. Valentine is limited, but what we do know is that there are records of three different St. Valentines.
The first was a priest and physician in Rome. He joined St. Marius in comforting the martyrs during the persecution of emperor Claudius II Gothicus and was later arrested. Legend has it that the priest signed a letter “from your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended and, according to some accounts, healed from blindness. Eventually, he was condemned to death for his faith, beaten with clubs, and finally beheaded on February 14, AD 270. Later, a basilica was built at the site of his tomb by Pope Julius I.
The second St. Valentine was the Bishop of Interamna about 60 miles from Rome, now Terni. Under the orders of Prefect Placidus, he was also arrested, scourged, and decapitated, again during the time of emperor Claudius II Gothicus.
The third St. Valentine suffered martyrdom in Africa with several companions, but nothing more is known about him. All three St. Valentines are revered for their heroic love for the Lord and the Church through their martyrdom.
The custom of showing love and affection on Valentine’s has ties to various legends. During medieval times, a common belief in England and France was that birds began to pair on February 14. Yet another popular legend suggests that St. Valentine defied the emperor’s orders and married couples in secret to spare the husbands from war, therefore associating St. Valentine’s feast day with love. However, coincidence seems to play a major role in the feast day being dovetailed with love.
So, while the exchange of valentines—which started appearing in the 1500’s—may be more secular in origin, there is still a Christian message to remember. The love that our Lord has for us is a sacrificial, selfless, and unconditional. This is the love that each Christian is called to express in his or her own life, for both God and their neighbor.
Jesus said, “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. There is no great love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). St. Valentine fulfilled this command, as we may be so brave to do if called upon.