The Origin of Saint Valentine’s Day

William FedererBy William Federer10 Minutes

The origin of Saint Valentine’s Day goes back to the 3rd century. At that time, the Roman Empire was being invaded by Goths. At the same time, the Plague of Cyprian, probably smallpox, broke out killing at its height 5,000 people a day. So many died that the Roman army was depleted of soldiers. Roman Emperor Claudius II needed more soldiers to fight the invading Goths. He believed that men fought better if they were not married, so he banned traditional marriage in the military.

Rome was also torn from internal rivalries which continued since the assassination of the previous Emperor, Gallienus. Emperor Claudius II quelled these tensions by requesting the Roman Senate deify Emperor Gallienus, so as to be worshiped along with the other Roman gods. Citizens were forced to worship the Roman gods, and “deified” emperors, by placing a pinch of incense on a fire before their statues.

Those who refused worship of the Roman gods were considered “politically incorrect” or “unpatriotic” enemies of the state and killed. Emperor Decian’s persecution specifically targeted Christians with legislation forcing them to deny their consciences or die. During the first three centuries of Christianity, there were ten major persecutions in which the government threw Christians to the lions, boiled them alive, had their tongues cut out, and worse. Roman soldiers would break into church meetings, catacombs, and homes, confiscating and destroying Christian writings, scriptures and church records.

Because so many records were destroyed, details of Saint Valentine’s life are scant. What little is known is from the works of Eusebius of Caesarea, compiled around 362 AD and the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (Martyrology of Jerome), compiled around A.D. 460-544. Saint Valentine is mentioned in Legenda Sanctorum by Jacobus de Voragine in 1260 and in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

Though several individuals may have had that name, it appears Saint Valentine was either a priest in Rome or a bishop in Terni, central Italy. He risked the Emperor’s wrath by standing up for traditional marriage, secretly marrying soldiers to their young brides. When Emperor Claudius demanded that Christians deny their consciences and worship pagan idols, Saint Valentine refused. He was arrested, dragged before the Prefect of Rome, and condemned him to die.

While awaiting execution, his jailer, Asterius, asked Saint Valentine to pray for his blind daughter. When she miraculously regained her sight, the jailer converted and was baptized, along with many others. Right before his execution, Saint Valentine wrote a note to the jailer’s daughter, signing it, “from your Valentine.”

Saint Valentine was beaten with clubs and stones, and when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14, 269AD. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius designated February 14th as “Saint Valentine’s Day.”

Like the Birds in the Trees

In the High Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer, called the father of English literature, wrote a poem called Parliament of Foules (Assembly of Fowls) (c.1393). It it he described how fowls, birds, chose their mates in mid-February:

“For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.”

He made another mention in the final chapter of The Cantebury Tales:

“The book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes (Birds).”

The association of birds with fidelity in marital love came about because 90 percent of bird species are monogamous. Many bird species mate for life, such as varieties of Swans, Canada Geese, Ravens, Cranes, Blue Jays, Barn Owls, Red-Tailed Hawks, Woodpeckers, Ospreys, Raptors, Penguins, and Bald Eagles. After elaborate courtships, depending on their species, these birds remain together until one partner dies. Birds that mate for life have offspring that require more extensive care and instruction from parents. They are able to mate earlier in the season which allows their young more time to develop before the fall and winter seasons of long migrations or harsh winter weather.

After Chaucer poems, more references appeared in literature associating Saint Valentine’s Day with courtly love. This eventually developed into the 18th-century English traditions of presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending St. Valentine’s Day greeting cards.

X’s and O’s

People often sign Valentine cards with X’s and O’s. The Greek name for Christ, Χριστό, begins with the letter “X” which in Greek is called “Chi.” “X” became a common abbreviation for the name Christ. This is why Christ-mas is abbreviated as X-mas. In Medieval times, the “X” was called the Christ’s Cross, or “Criss-Cross.” It reminded students that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”

“Mortals ne’er shall know, More than contained of old the Chris’-cross row.”

The Christ’s Cross was a form of a written oath. Similar to the ancient practice of swearing upon a Bible, saying “so help me God,” then kissing the Bible, people would sign a document with or next to the Christ’s Cross to swear before God they would keep the agreement, then kiss it to show sincerity.

This practice has come down to us as “sign at the X”, or saying “I swear, cross my heart.” This is the origin of signing a Valentines’ card with an “X” to express a pledge before God to be faithful, and an “O” to seal the pledge with a kiss of sincerity.

Valentine in History

History is intertwined with Valentine’s references:

Frederick Douglass was born a slave and separated from his mother as a child. All he remembers is her calling him, “my little valentine.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother died on Valentine’s Day in 1884. Depressed, Roosevelt dropped out of New York politics, left his infant daughter with a relative, and went off to ranch in the Dakotas.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred in 1929 during the Prohibition era. Al Capone’s Chicago mob murdered seven members of Bugs Moran’s Irish gang.

Al Capone’s hitman Frank Nitti, as he terrorized neighborhoods, was accompanied by the young Saul Alinsky, who later incorporated this into his political technique of “community organizing.”

Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals (1971):

“The organizer must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community … stir up dissatisfaction and discontent … search out controversy and issues … fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression … For unless there is controversy, the people are not motivated enough to act.”

Since the Roman persecutions, Christianity has become the most persecuted faith in the world, with over 300 being martyred each day, or one every five minutes, mostly in communist and fundamentalist Islamic countries. The Center for Studies on New Religions reported that in 2016, 90,000 Christians killed, 30 percent by Islamic terrorists.

Easton’s Bible Dictionary explains that the Greek word for “martyr” is translated into English as “witness.”

Acts 1:8 recorded Jesus’ words to His followers:

“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”

Saint Valentine’s willingness to be a martyr for Christ and his heroic, loving example still inspires believers to follow the scriptures:

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:44)

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:35)

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)