Who Was Saint Valentine and How Did Valentine's Day Start?

Every 14th of February, children give each other cards and candy hearts, many lament Singles Awareness Day, and those lucky enough to have a significant other celebrate romantic activities. It’s a lovely tradition, but it hardly seems a fitting celebration for a man who was beheaded for his Christian faith in the 270s AD.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus told the disciples in John 15:13. He also said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

Saint Valentine is a heroic example of the Christian faith, and this martyr deserves to be remembered every 14th of February.

Besides this, not much is definitively known of the saint. Indeed, the Catholic Encyclopedia reported that there are at least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, who are celebrated on February 14 in the Roman calendar. One served as a priest in Rome, another as a bishop in Interamna (modern Terni in Italy), and both were martyred in the late 200s and buried on the Flaminian Way in Rome. A third Saint Valentine was martyred in Africa with a number of companions.

For a long time, a gate in the city of Rome known to the ancients as the Flaminian Gate was known as the Gate of St. Valentine, and there was a church dedicated to the saint close by. Unfortunately, while there are legends about both Saint Valentines martyred in Rome, the only stories were written long after their deaths and are historically unreliable.

What is known for certain is that Pope Gelasius I made February 14, originally part of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a very ancient pastoral festival which (according to Plutarch) involved naked men running through the city of Rome. The goal of the festival was to avert evil spirits and purify the city, so that health and fertility could result.

Nevertheless, told one story of Valentine the priest, who was executed under the rule of Emperor Claudius II on February 14, around the year 278.

“Under the rule of Claudius the Cruel, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns,” reported. “The emperor had to maintain a strong army, but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and children.”

So Claudius did the unthinkable — and distinctly unromantic. He “banned all marriages and engagements in Rome.” Valentine defied the emperor and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. For this, Claudius had him decapitated.

“Legend also has it that while in jail, St. Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, who had become his friend, and signed it ‘From Your Valentine,'” the story concluded.

But there’s another explanation for why people celebrate (or long for) love on February 14. According to Catholic Encyclopedia, medieval people in England and France thought that birds began to pair half way through the second month of the year (February 14). Indeed, the Catholic site quoted Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls.” From a translation into modern English:

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,

When every fowl comes there his mate to take,

Both the French and English literature of the 1300s and 1400s contain allusions to the practice of writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens at this time of year.

The tradition of celebrating love (or lamenting the lack thereof) may or may not trace back to the martyr Valentine, but Christians who recognize the terrible persecution suffered by their brothers and sisters across the globe today should remember his death, and those of other martyrs who died at the hands of Roman emperors, like the brave Perpetua and the philosopher Justin Martyr.

Those who celebrate Singles Awareness Day on February 14 can still take inspiration from the stories of the martyrs, remembering the cost of Christianity under the Roman Empire, the persecution many still face, and the religious freedom enjoyed in many countries today.

Whether or not you celebrate a romantic relationship in the middle of February, you can remember the inspiring story of Valentine, which points to the story of Jesus Christ, the God-man who died for the sins of the world and rose from the dead to make the sinful righteous and the loveless lovely. To save a people for himself, that they might become a bride for God who made the universe and enjoy an eternal wedding feast with Him.

Now there’s a story that’s much better documented, and even more romantic.

Click “Load More” to see a short video about Saint Valentine.