On Valentine’s day we have not only a perfect example of a holy day being secularized, but also a great example of how we humans recreate the past by projecting the present back into time. I’ll get to the second point in a bit, but in the mean time, let’s look at St. Valentine himself.
Of course, St. Valentine is the patron saint of, well, nothing. Apparently there are several saints named Valentine, but the one whose day if February 14th is rather obscure. In fact, in 1969 the Catholic church itself, saying that nothing was known about St. Valentine took his day off the main (universal) church calendar. Local bishops can celebrate the day in their area if they want, but it is no longer on the liturgical calendar. How can it be that nothing is known about one of the best known saints in the canon?
First we start with two different guys named Valentine who were martyred for refusing to give up their faith and both of them being buried on the Via Flamnia in Rome. Even though the dates of their lives are some two hundred years apart, it is sometimes thought they were in fact the same guy. The first pope who mentioned Valentine said he was among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” Not much to go on there, and that was nearly a contemporary.
So, the name goes on the calendar and no one mentions Valentine for nearly 1000 years. Not exactly famous. In the late 1400s Chaucer becomes the first to mention Valentine when he says in a line in a poem that birds pick their mates on Valentine’s day. Apparently several other poets used this trope around the same time, although it is not clear who was first. Although there is some disagreement as to the exact meaning of the line, it seems to be not much more than using the date as a harbinger of spring.
Perhaps as a result of that line or maybe totally unrelated, Valentine’s day is later used as the day for a kind of spin the bottle ritual where people picked the name of their “mate” from a jar full of names of people of the opposite sex. Church types latter replaced the names of local people with the names of saints, and took all the fun out of that.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years to the 18th century with the beginnings of romantic love among more people as a method of choosing a mate, Valentine was resurrected as a symbol of this process, perhaps as a misreading of Chaucer.
At around the same time, the legend of Valentine began to grow. Although his hagiography at the time was pretty simple, it seems the writer knew more about Valentine than his contemporaries! From there the legend grows.
First is added the detail that Valentine healed the daughter of his jailer (cured her blindness) and later sent her a note signed, “Your Valentine.” It was also added that he performed weddings for Christian soldiers in the Roman army to whom marriage had been forbidden. It goes without saying that there is no historical evidence for such a prohibition. But even if there were, we have no historical evidence for anything Valentine did! The final encrustation of legend was that Valentine wore a ring of amethyst with an image of cupid on it. Birthstone of February: amethyst. Which, of course, begs the question of why a Christian priest would have an image of a pagan sex god on his person. In other words, ain’t no way that happened either.
So, how did we get here? To me it is a case of projecting the present back into the past because we want the comfort of feeling like things are like they are because they have always been this way.
Not only are we uncomfortable with the idea of having evolved from other animals, but we are also uncomfortable with the idea that everything evolves. We want to think we always picked our mates the way we do today, so we take our current view of things, idealize it a bit and then project it back on the past. It doesn’t matter now that the original St.Valentine didn’t have anything to do with anything, his memory has been co-opted for a celebration of love that to some extent didn’t exist in his day (we can discuss the history of romantic love and whether it is a modern creation in another post!) And certainly Valentine (or any Christian of the Roman era) had nothing to do with boxes of chocolates, dining out, exchanging sappy cards and items of skimpy clothing, as we do today.
Just to bring things full circle, I have thought many times that modern Christians suffer from the projecting our current mores on to the past. When we read the bible today we can’t possibly understand it the way it was in Valentine’s time. No matter what the “fundamentalists” say. Maybe a few gifted scholars can get into the mindset and worldview of a third century Roman Christian, but most of us can’t. It absolutely means something different today than it did then.
The best example I can come up with is that I am young enough (I love saying that!) to not remember the musical world before Dylan and Beatles. Even when I first heard them, the musical world had already changed. Yes, I think they are great, but I cannot experience the worldview shift when they burst onto the scene. That new musical worldview was already in place by the time I heard their music. Maybe someone very gifted in music can imagine the world before them and truly understand their impact, but most of us are left with words and pictures.
Christianity has evolved just as surely as Valentine’s day has. And I think with just as much actual underlying evidence. Maybe Valentine was real, maybe not, but a whole set of rituals and beliefs have grown up around him. Happens all the time, everything changes.