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The history of Valentine's day

Published: 13/02/2020 By The Abode Team

Did it all start with St. Valentine? Well actually no it didn't. It all began about eight hundred years before St. Valentine was born. Valentine's day history has its roots in ancient Roman culture when Juno Februtis, the god of purification and fertility, was worshipped on the 15th of February. The feast of ‘Lupercalia’ was also celebrated that same day and was a very popular feast believed to bring purification and fertility for the city of Rome. It also celebrated the end of the old year (February being the last month in the ancient Roman calendar), the coming of Spring and the start of the growth of crops. It is maintained that on the eve of 'Lupercalia' - February 14th - the names of young Roman women were drawn from an urn by young men, and they became 'betrothed' for at least the following year.  Some, though by no means all, of those unions later became marriages. A lucky dip Roman style or an ancient version of Bingo perhaps! So, modern Valentine's day traditions related to becoming 'engaged' on the 14th February seem to go back as far as the culture of ancient Roman weddings.

The rise of Christianity meant that Christian leaders weren't terribly keen on keeping 'pagan' traditions but at the same time they didn’t want to alienate the Roman population. As a result of this the feast of 'Lupercalia' was cleverly re-branded as a Christian festival of love, re-dated to the eve of 'Lupercalia' and dedicated to a third century Roman martyr who was executed on 14th February and subsequently became a saint. His name was? Yes, you’ve guessed it, St. Valentine. And so our present Valentine's day traditions were born.

But who exactly was St. Valentine and, as there are apparently three of them, which one is the St. Valentine? Well there are three possible candidates. One, who lived and died in Africa, is largely discounted and historians think the remaining two were actually one and the same person - Valentine of Terni (in Umbria) and Valentine of Rome.

Why was he chosen as the patron Saint of love and lovers? Well, in the third century A.D., the Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers - so he banned marriage for young men of fighting age. A young priest called Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, continued to marry young lovers in secret. When his defiance of the Emperor was uncovered he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. But it didn't finish there. Whilst in prison he became friends with one of his jailers and this jailer had a daughter who was unable to see. In an act later defined as a miracle St. Valentine restored her sight and his jailer converted to Christianity. And that's not all. The day before his execution Valentine wrote a letter to the daughter, expressing his regard for both her and her father, and he signed it "Your Valentine". So the Valentine’s day traditions of letter-writing, which later transformed into the sending of Valentine's cards, was born and has been continued to this day in many parts of the world.

So where is he now this compassionate sight-restoring gentleman? After his execution on the 14th February 270 A.D., Valentine was buried on the Via Flaminia, part-way between Rome and Terni.  He was later exhumed and his body is now claimed by various places. Terni, where he is said to have come from, claims to have his body beneath the main altar in its Basilica and the church is the site of pilgrimage for many. Rome, where he was originally buried, is said to have his skull in the Basilica of Santa Maria Cosmedin and the church of St Valentin at Jumièges in France also lays claim to the skull. Both the Basilica of Palmoli in Abruzzo, where he has been patron saint since 1736, and a Carmelite monastery in Dublin in Ireland, also claim to have the saint's mortal remains. Whoever he was and wherever he is, a very happy Valentine's day to all but most of all to Valentine himself.