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So won’t the real ST VALENTINE please stand up?1

By Chris Littler

So won’t the real ST VALENTINE please stand up?

Valentine’s Day is coming up, and, depending on your situation, you’re either looking forward to it with candy heart-bated breath, or dreading it like you would a trip to the doctor after a strange rash appeared on your nether regions. But regardless how you feel, there’s no denying Valentine’s Day is a great American tradition. Of all the holidays we have, it’s the one that really narrows it down to what matters: love. As a wise man once said, “Love is all you need.”

It’s true. But it also helps to have fifty bucks in the bank. You know, for those dozen long-stem roses, French foreign films, and obligatory fancy dinners. But that’s beside the point. We’re just complaining…. and we’re not alone.

A lot of people complain about this holiday. There’s a sense that Valentine’s Day was an invention of the greeting card companies. That’s entirely possible, but the tradition of treating your honeybear to a little scheduled loving dates back a lot further than Hallmark. It goes back to the days of Chaucer, where the idea of modern romance was first invented. Before then, there was little in the way of courtship, at least as we know it now. Marriage was a business arrangement. No need to woo your lady if you already had it in the bag.

But what about the namesake? Who was Saint Valentine, and what the heck did he do that motivated us to honor him with a holiday that blesses us with good lovin’?

The short answer is: we have no idea. We know there are several men named Valentine who were martyred, and therefore could feasibly be the Saint Valentine, but there’s no concrete proof which of these is the Valentine we celebrate every February 14th.

You’d think that if we’re going to go through all the trouble of sainting someone, we’d keep a better record of what they did – but that’s not the case, sadly. All we have of Saint Valentine are accounts of his deeds written in really old liturgical documents, and there’s no way of knowing if they’re confusing one Valentine with another.

As far we know, there are three Valentine’s to choose from. It’s kind of like The Dating Game. You get to choose which Saint Valentine you want to take home. And like the Dating Game, the three of them all hail from different walks of life: there’s Valentine of Rome, Valentine of Terni, and – the wild card! – Valentine of Africa.

Valentine of Rome, a Roman priest, was martyred during the reign of Claudius II, also known as Claudius Gothicus. According to Legenda Aurea, a collection of hagiographies written by Jacobus de Voragine in 1260, he was imprisoned for marrying Christian couples in a time where the very act of being Christian was a crime. To make matters worse, Claudius didn’t want married men in his army, presumably because being married gives men a reason to live. (Shows what he knows, right guys? Just kidding. Love you, honey!)

According to another book you’ll never read, the Nuremberg Chronicle, Claudius, for some reason, became enamored with Valentine of Rome while he was imprisoned. He was so captivated by the guy that he even tried to convince him to give up his Christianity and convert to Roman Paganism. Of course, Valentine, being a good Christian, turned the tables and tried to convince his emperor to become a Christian instead… and was condemned to death for it. Heartbreak Hotel!

But just because Valentine was doomed to die didn’t stop him from being a miracle-worker. On the night before he was killed, the priest reportedly cured the jailer’s daughter of her blindness… with his mind. Wow. That’s how you become a saint, people. You can’t just do good deeds. You have do magic deeds.

One further embellishment, added by the American Greetings card company to history.com, was that just before he was dragged to his execution, Valentine gave the jailer a handwritten note to pass on to his true love. It was signed, “From your Valentine.” That’d make it the first Valentine ever.

And, hey, that’d be great if it was true. It’s not, though. Never in a million years. But that probably won’t stop it from becoming regarded as truth in the years to come. Why? Because it means the holiday makes a little more sense. Kind of like how the Easter Bunny saved Jesus from the chocolate monsters that were ravaging the Israeli countryside.

Sad to say, Valentine of Rome was beaten within an inch of his life with clubs, stoned in the public square, and eventually beheaded outside Flaminian Gate. A brutal ending for a guy who just wanted Christians to get married and have more Christian babies. But hey, this was antiquity. People got killed for lesser things.

Moving on to contestant number two: Valentine of Terni. He was a bishop of Interamna in AD 197, which is modern Terni, a city in central Italy. He oversaw the construction of the basilica in his city, but there’s no suggestion that he did anything remotely resembling matchmaking.

Like Valentine of Rome, Valentine of Terni was persecuted under a cruel Emperor, this one named Emperor Aurelian. We have no record as to why he was killed, but we can assume it had something to do with proselytizing and/or telling people that he was a miracle worker. Or maybe he just said the wrong thing at a dinner party. Like we said, people got killed for really stupid stuff back then.

His body was buried in Via Flaminia. In 1836, relics supposedly belonging to him were exhumed from his catacombs and donated to Pope Gregory XVI. Tourists still visit his remains, and a procession takes place there every Valentines Day, despite the fact that we have no idea if this Valentine is the Valentine we should be celebrating, or just another guy named Valentine who got himself killed.

And the last, but certainly not least, is Valentine of Africa. We know next-to-nothing about this Valentine, other than he lived in the Roman Province of Africa and was martyred. Apparently they didn’t keep a good record of things over in Africa. Not that it really matters. The odds of this guy being the Saint Valentine are slim to none. But you have to have the wild card in there, just for kicks.

That’s not even counting the four other Saint Valentines recognized by the Catholic Church. But those guys were all killed after Chaucer’s time, so we can assume they aren’t the Valentine we’re looking for.
Let’s just say that none of this matters. This isn’t one of those holidays where you have to remind people of the “reason for the season.” Because, hey, we really don’t know the reason. We just know that on February 14th, we celebrate our adoration for one another. Sometimes we’ll know the person we adore like the back of our hand. Other times, we might find ourselves loving someone we barely know, which we think is a fitting tradition, considering the namesake.

Chris Littler lives in Hollywood. He has a degree in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, one of the most prestigious writing programs in America, which he totally plans to hang on the wall when he has a Study. Chris currently covers video games at UGO.com when he’s not performing improv at iO, and is currently writing a one-hour TV pilot with his friend Wes. Like everyone else you know, he has an album available to purchase on iTunes and has lots of things to say on his blog: chrislittler[dot]com.

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Must Reads 8/30/2014