Valentine’s Day is a holiday that celebrates love, but as is the case with other holidays, commercialization can cloud the meaning behind the special day. If you were to ask a dozen people about the day’s origin, a good percentage would guess that the holiday was created by florists, candy makers and greeting card companies, but there is a reason that it is called Valentine’s Day and not ‘Hallmark Day.’
The original purpose of Valentine’s Day was to mark and celebrate the feast day of Christian martyr Saint Valentine. February 14 has become a special day, especially in the United States and Italy, where candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones. Though everyone knows the name, much less is known about the man associated with the most romantic day of the year. “La Festa degli Innamorati” pays homage to a priest who gave his life for the survival of love.
Saint Valentine (actually Valentinus), was born in Terni in the region of Umbria in Italy, during the second century AD. He left his hometown and moved to Rome, where he served as a priest. When Claudius II became Emperor in 268, he decreed that young men were prohibited from marriage. Claudius was a lifelong soldier and very successful military leader. He believed that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius, which was a capital crime and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, he was placed on trial. The judge was a man named Asterius, who found Valentinus to be a learned and intellectual man. He was persuaded to put Valentinus’ faith to the test. His adopted daughter was blind and Asterius told Valentinus that if he could summon the almighty to restore his daughter’s sight he would set him free and convert to Christianity. Valentinus laid his hands on the child’s eyes and her vision was restored. Asterius kept his word and freed the priest. He and his entire household were baptized as Christians.
This did not end Valentine’s story by any means. Word reached the Emperor about the priest’s actions and this time Valentinus was brought before Claudius himself. The Emperor, like Judge Asterius, found Valentinus to be a forthright and an intelligent man. Rather than condemning him to death, he gave Valentinus the opportunity to save himself by renouncing his faith. Valentinus not only maintained his devotion to Christianity, he attempted to convert Claudius. The Emperor was incensed and sentenced Valentinus to be beheaded. Valentinus was put to death on February 14, 269, outside the Flaminian Gate, later named Porta Valentini – The Gate of Valentine. His relics were buried in what is now the Church of Praxedes in Rome.
The tale of Saint Valentine’s sympathetic, heroic and romantic actions spread through the country and by the Middle Ages, he was one of most popular saints in Europe. However, Valentine’s Day actually served as a replacement for the pagan festival Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15. It was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. Young women of the city would place their names in a large urn and the city’s bachelors would then choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage, giving further credence to the idea that February was a month of love. In 496, Pope Gelasius outlawed the pagan rite and replaced it with a day to honor Saint Valentine, the priest who risked his life marring young couples in love. Thus, February 14 became Saint Valentine’s Day, a day synonymous with romance and the endurance of true love.