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San Valentino’s history and St. Valentine’s Day

San Valentino’s history, what do we know about it? Do we know why this Italian saint is universally considered the patron saint of lovers and how did the celebrations we all know about come to be?

February is the month of the colorful celebrations of Carnevale but lovers and romantics of all kinds will be quick to remind us February is first of all the month of roses, hearts, and chocolate boxes: it is the month of Saint Valentine.

San Valentino’s history tell us it’s not all about chocolates and flowers

Absolutely adored by most romantics, mocked by many, and embraced with flair by singles, who go out in groups to celebrate their freedom, Saint Valentine is, in Italy as almost anywhere in the world, the festa degli innamorati,  the day of lovers. As such, the day of San Valentino is criticized by those who see it pretty much as nothing more than a commercial celebration, pumped up by chocolate producers and jewelry makers (… and restaurateurs. And florists. And… very much anyone producing or selling something that can be gifted). On March 8th, it is associated with other quintessentially “commercial” feasts such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Women’s Day.

san valentino's history
Leonhard Beck – Heiliger Valentin (Veste Coburg) di Leonhard Beck – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (wikimedia.org)

In reality, all of these have historical or religious roots, and their significance extends far beyond their – admittedly now predominating – commercial aspect. Mother’s Day is celebrated in Italy on the first Sunday of May, the month liturgically dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Father’s Day falls on the 19th of March, the day of Saint Joseph (… I know, in the US is celebrated in June…) and the day dedicated to all women, the 8th of March, is on the anniversary of one of the largest marches for women’s emancipation and labor rights, that took place in New York in 1908.

It is undeniable these celebrations are today, for the most part, a heavily commercialized affair.  Take Saint Valentine’s day: it is estimated that, each year, about one billion Valentine’s cards are sent all over the world, whereas chocolate and candy sales usually reach profits of 1.011 billion USD. People send about 50 million roses worldwide and sell more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. And these data don’t even look into the hospitality and jewelry businesses, two of the main protagonist of the 14th of February’s gifts exchange.

Of course, there is nothing wrong in celebrating this day with your significant other or to buy chocolates.

But wait, there’s more…

…Actually, if you wish to be nice for Valentine’s day and make an Italian woman happy, you can send me all the chocolate you want, preferably with peanut butter…

No…this wasn’t my point. My point is, of course, it’s nice to celebrate and exchange gifts, but we shouldn’t really need a day of the year to remember our partner is awesome (or our mom, or dad, or all women. You got the geist!). And, perhaps more importantly for what follows, do we even know why we celebrate love on Saint Valentine’s Day?
Saint Valentine is associated with love and romance, but it’s unclear who he was or why the association exists.

To find all this out, we may need to take a little step back in time. This would be to the centuries of Imperial Rome and Christian persecutions, the centuries when the Catholic Church was still just known as Christian and was only then creating its structure and liturgy. These are the years of Saint Valentine, and this is the time our story begins…

San Valentino’s history: the “real” Saint Valentine

saint valentine
The Basilica of San Valentino, in Terni, the saint’s birthplace (by supergab at wikimedia.org)

San Valentino’s history tells us that Saint Valentine is the patron saint of Terni, a quaint town in Umbria. He is protector of lovers and of people suffering from epilepsy and was born in 176 AD in Interamma Nahars, which is, indeed, known today as Terni. He is venerated by the Catholic and Orthodox church, as well as the Anglican.

Saint Valentine was a pagan by family and tradition, like many other early saints. He converted to Christianity when he was an adult.

The first information on San Valentino’s history comes from the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (5th century)  the most ancient document on Christian martyr’s extant.  In truth, its author is anonymous. Three centuries later, the Passio Sancti Valentini gives faithful more details about Valentino’s figure and about his martyrdom; as many other Christians of the time, he was tortured and beheaded at nighttime, in Rome, his body carried to his birthplace of Terni to be buried by three of his disciples, who were in turn captured, tortured and killed, too. All this is narrated in the Passio, which is a treasure chest of information on San Valentino’s history and life.

San Valentino’s history: a second Valentine?

But there is a mystery in San Valentino’s history. Tradition speaks of a Saint Valentine from Rome who was martyred on the Via Flaminia. He was buried there around the same time as Saint Valentine of Terni, who died in 273 AD.

The Bibliotheca Sanctorum is a document on Christian saints wanted by the Vatican Council II. It only accepts Saint Valentine of Terni as real and attributes the second Valentine to a reinterpretation of the first. The Passio itself mentions that the bishop had died in Rome after being called to the capital to heal a youth and being condemned to death by Placid, the prefect of the city. This happened when he refused to offer a sacrifice to the gods.

However, the figure of this “second” Saint Valentine is pretty important to San Valentino’s history, when considering the “day of Saint Valentine”: to some, he is the one behind the association of the saint to lovers and love and not the bishop of Terni. To keep things simple, we will go with the Bibliotheca Sanctorum‘s idea and will consider Saint Valentine as original from Terni and tied to Rome simply because place of his martyrdom and death.

Saint Valentine and his cult: a pagan origin…

The figure of Saint Valentine, we saw, is rooted in the history of the early church, as well as that of Roman persecution of Christians in the years of the Empire. The creation of a cult was not immediate, even though its first attestations are early: it was, in fact, the Venerable Bede to speak of Saint Valentine and his feast, between the 7th and the 8th centuries AD. He does so in the Martyrologium Romanum .Bede, the origin of which is Irish, is tied to the shores of Britain. He may be the reason why the cult of Saint Valentine became popular so early on the island, where the association of Saint Valentine with lovers was first found. This happens in Medieval times and, apparently, had little to do with the saint: let’s see why.

It seems it was in England that the figure of Valentine became associated with love and lovers in particular. This, according to some, has nothing to do with the saint’s own characteristics.

It is strange that this is not usually the case. Saint Francis was known for his love for all creatures, and thus became the patron saint of animals. Similarly, Saint Nicholas was known for his generosity and for his body being carried to Bari by sailors. This led to him becoming both a saint bearer of gifts and a protector of sailors.

Yet, plenty of people believe Saint Valentine became the saint protector of lovers because of the day when he was liturgically celebrated, the 14th of February, rather than for something specific he did during his life. On this date, an old folk tale would say, male birds would choose their partners. This belief was so popular that even Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, used it in the Parlement of Foules as the backdrop for the main events of the tale, where three male royal eagles fought over the attention of one female.

The story continues…

San Valentino's history
Saint Valentine’s relics, in the Terni basilica dedicated to him (by freakit at wikimedia.org)

However, it is also true that the Romans, once again, may claim the day to themselves: it was traditional to celebrate the god-faun Lupercus on the 15th of February each year, during what was called Lupercalia. The name “Lupercalia” comes from the lupercale, a cave where Lupercus priests would make a pilgrimage on the festival day. This cave was believed to be where the she-wolf had raised Romulus and Remus. During the Lupercalia festival, a central ritual took place which involved a sacrifice. Two of Lupercus’ priests were then selected and led to an altar. The priests had a knife dipped in the blood of the sacrificed animal marked on their foreheads, and then the marks were cleaned off their faces using cotton soaked in milk.

The ritual aimed at giving to the luperci the gift of fertility, which they would spread by running around the Palatine hill and hitting (hopefully without hurting them!) women and girls with the skins of the sacrificed animal. During the Lupercalia, it was also customary for boys to choose a girl to whom declare their romantic interest.

Apparently, the celebration of Saint Valentine as we know it today seems to hail from Britain. This custom was exported to Britain by Roman soldiers stationed there during the conquest. The association between Saint Valentine and lovers spread throughout Europe, even though it kept particularly strong in northern regions. The tradition of declaring love to a favorite girl by choosing her name was well-preserved in Britain until recently.

… Or hagiographical roots?

People who carefully read about Saint Valentine’s life, note that he had a strong connection with lovers. These stories are the foundation of his popularity as a saint. While he was imprisoned in Rome, Valentine was allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence at the home of a Roman noble family who was responsible for his custody. This is a testament to the respect and admiration he had earned during his lifetime. Here, he healed their young, blind daughter, of whom he was very fond. Before dying, he wrote a touching, last message to her, signed simply from your Valentine. And it is so, then, that the content of millions of Valentine’s cards was created.

But it’s not all: Bishop Valentine reconciled two fighting lovers with a rose and a request to hold hands. Protected difficult love between ill woman and Roman centurion, baptized and married them. Both fell into a peaceful sleep after marriage.

Either way, you decide to take it, the ties of Valentine to love are strong: fertility rituals, healed girls receiving loving letters, arguing couples reconciling. It comes as no surprise Valentine is the saint protector of lovers.

Some curiosities about Saint Valentine’s Day

Do you need some trivia to keep your date entertained on Valentine’s night? We got you covered…

  • Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a classic romantic film, but it can help you plan your day…
  • It was Pope Gelasius, around 498 AD, to declare the 14th of February the day of Saint Valentine. This means we’ve been celebrating it for more than 1500 years.
  • A whopping 53% of women said they would dump their boyfriends if they didn’t get them something for Valentine’s Day. Boys, you’ve been warned.
  • The first heart-shaped box of chocolate was sold in 1868 and was created by British chocolatier Richard Cadbury.
  • Apparently, 15% of US women send flowers to themselves on Valentine’s day each year. Am I the only one to find this slightly desperate?
  • More about flowers: men buy around 73% of all flowers sold for Valentine’s, whereas women only 23%.
  • 64% of US men fail to make plans in advance for Valentine’s day with their partner. Apparently, the sitcom stereotype of the clumsy boyfriend forgetting the 14th of February mirrors reality to a T.
  • Interestingly enough, 9 million Americans buy Valentine’s gifts for their pets.
  • Italy! Verona, home to Shakespeare’s lovers Romeo and Juliet, receives at least 1000 letters to Juliet on Valentine’s Day each year.
  • Presents! Stats show that women buy 85% of all Valentine’s gifts.
  • Kids are lucky on Valentine’s day: they receive up to 39% of all candy and gifts purchased.
  • In Finland, Saint Valentine is the day of friendship and not simply of lovers.
  • In Denmark, women traditionally ask for their partner’s hand on Valentine’s. This habit originated, very likely, in the Middle Ages, when the Scottish queen Margareta decreed women could propose to their men only during the month of February. In case of refusal, the woman had the right to demand from his lover 12 pairs of handmade silk gloves.
  • Romanians do not celebrate lovers on Valentine’s day, but 10 days later, on the 24th of February. Their celebration is linked to Romania’s own mythology and pre-Christian beliefs.
  • Just as in Romania, in Wales lovers are not celebrated on the 14th of February, but 10 days earlier, on the 25th of January, on the day of Saint Dwynwen, considered the patron protector of Welsh lovers. It used to be customary to carve wooden spoons with hearts, locks, and keys as a symbol of love.
  • In Japan, it is girls who buy chocolates for their boyfriends, but not only. In fact, also male friends, or work colleagues can be gifted chocolates on Valentine’s. On March 14th, a month later, it will be the boys’ turn to purchase a gift to give to women. The same happens in South Korea where, however, an extra date is added: on the 14th of April, if no gifts were received neither on Valentine’s, nor on the 14th of March, people go to the restaurant –rigorously alone– and order squid ink noodles. These are black and symbolize the sadness of not having received any Valentine. For this reason, the 14th of April is called black day.

Some curiosities about love chocolates in Italy

saint valentine
A typical message found in a Bacio Perugina (by Spinoziano at wikimedia.org)

Most of these data could be applied to Italy, too, but there are some differences. It’s unusual, for instance, to buy Valentine’s for children or pets, at least as far as I know, whereas the fact women are tendentially more into it than men rings true for us as well. Chocolates are a favorite purchase and we even have our quintessential Valentine’s day variety, the Baci Perugina: wrapped in a pretty silver foil covered with romantic blue stars, each bacio comes with a love aphorism inside. They’ve been around for decades and they are the ultimate Saint Valentine’s sweet treat.

With the option of personalizing the messages inside, you can surprise your loved one with a heartfelt declaration of love, a promise of loyalty, or even a marriage proposal. Although Valentine’s Day is not widely observed in many countries, it has grown among singles who exchange gifts with friends. The international versions of the holiday mentioned above are not widely recognized. Nevertheless, it has become relatively popular in recent years.

Here we go, so: we’ve discovered a bit more about the “real” Saint Valentine, a figure shaded in mystery (were there one or two of them?), whose cult may or may not be entirely Christian (Lupercalia, anyone?) and whose onomastic is celebrated somehow differently, depending on where you live. It is, in general, a day dedicated to people we love.  It is nice to remind them so with little presents, trinkets or flowers. The point is, shouldn’t we always feel like doing it, do we really need a specific moment of the year to show others we care? This is the main criticism brought to the day of Saint Valentine, yet, there is nothing wrong with celebrating it. Chocolates are always welcome, cards are lovely to receive and flowers brighten up a room in no time.

Provided this is not the only day of the year when you tell your sweetheart you love them, Saint Valentine is just a lovely moment to share with someone special.

And chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate!

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