14 February, 2010

Happy St. Valentine's Day

by Ronald J. Rychlak

Last year, my Constitutional Law class was discussing the so-called war on Christmas, part of the effort to remove all things religious (or at least all things Christian) from the public square. One of my students argued that holidays did not need to have a religious basis. As an example, she mentioned Valentine's Day. I asked her whether she had ever heard of the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Of course she had; everyone has.

The St. Valentine's Day massacre took place in Chicago in 1929. It is believed that Al Capone's gang from the south side of town dressed like police officers and mowed down seven members of Bugs Moran's north-side gang. The carnage finally motivated Chicago officials to crackdown on the gangsters of that era.

My point in mentioning it, of course, was that Valentine's Day was once known to virtually everyone as St. Valentine's Day. It's not clear when people dropped the "Saint," but it's clear that a change has taken place. It's hard to find any references to "St. Valentine's Day" in the broader culture today; but once upon a time, St. Valentine was a very popular saint.

The Catholic Church actually recognizes several different saints named Valentine or Valentinus (including St. Valentin Faustino Berri Ochoa, St. Valentine of Genoa, and St. Valentine of Strasbourg). Most people, however, trace the story of St. Valentine back to a Roman priest in the year 270. He was arrested and imprisoned for performing marriage ceremonies for Christian couples at a time when such ceremonies were prohibited (as married men were exempt from the Roman army). Valentine also may have aided other Christians who were being persecuted during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus (Claudius II).

Valentine was brought before the emperor and told to renounce his faith, but even under extreme torture he refused to do so. According to legend, couples whom he had married brought him flowers and gifts while he was in prison, which gave rise to the tradition of giving flowers and gifts in his honor.

Valentine tried to convert Emperor Claudius to Christianity, but his efforts were not well received: Claudius had Valentine executed outside Rome's Flaminian Gate on February 14, 270. According to another legend, while still in captivity, Valentine restored the sight of his jailer's blind daughter. On the day before his execution, he sent her a farewell message and signed it, "from your Valentine." That, of course, is said to have established another tradition.

More than two centuries later, in 496, Pope Gelasius marked February 14 as a celebration in honor of Valentine's martyrdom. According to some accounts, this date was chosen to preempt a pagan fertility festival known as Lupercalia, which took place at about that same time. Lupercalia involved a lottery by which young people would draw the name of a mate for a year. With the new holiday, Gelasius instead had participants draw the name of a saint to emulate for a year.

Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is unclear, the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a devout and heroic priest who facilitated Christian love. It is no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France. The French nobleman Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415, wrote a Valentine note to his wife that is still on display in the British Museum.

Unfortunately, the heroic story of Valentine's piety has been almost completely eclipsed by the "flowers, candy, and cards" holiday that we know today. Gelasius's efforts to Christianize mid-February seem to have come to naught, and we are left in the ironic position of celebrating romance on a day named after a celibate priest.

This may simply be further evidence that secularists would like to remove Christianity from all such holidays -- whether Christmas, Easter, or St. Valentine's Day. (Interestingly, St. Patrick's Day has survived intact so far, but it also is celebrated as a secular day, not a Christian one.) That leaves it to Christians to try to keep Christ in Christmas and other holidays. As for my part, let me wish readers a lovely Saint Valentine's Day.

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