Every year in the lead up to February 14, shops are replete with heart-shaped cards, elaborate bouquets of flowers and endless boxes of chocolates. On this special day, couples express their love for each other in a more explicit way than normal with many viewing it as just another commercial event to empty people’s pockets. But doesn’t Valentine’s Day have Christian origins? And how did we start celebrating it?
Who was Saint Valentine?
While we don’t know a lot about him, historians are confident that a man called St Valentine existed. The story goes that St Valentine was imprisoned in ancient Rome for marrying Christian couples by Judge Asterius. While discussing Christianity, Judge Asterius challenges St Valentine – was his faith powerful enough to cure the judge’s blind daughter? When St Valentine succeeds, Judge Asterius vows to convert to Christianity and was baptised, later releasing all those who were imprisoned for their Christian beliefs.
Apart from his name and stories such as the above, nothing is known of St Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.
As there was so little verifiable information available about him, when the Church revised the liturgical calendar in 1969, they removed St Valentine as a feast day – although still recognise him as a saint.
How did his feast day become to be associated with romance in the modern world?
The amorous nature of St Valentine’s Day dates back to the Middle Ages when it was thought that birds paired up on February 14. The English poet Chaucer wrote in his ‘Parliament of Foules’: “For this was on Seynt Valentyne’s day, When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Some scholars have suggested that this 18th-Century celebration supplanted an earlier pagan festival known as Lupercalia.
The Roman event was observed from February 13-15 and involved the cleansing of spirits to promote health and fertility. Unlike today, people didn’t exchange roses; it was a brutal and bloody affair involving animal sacrifice. Pope Gelasius I (492-496 AD) abolished Lupercalia but there is no evidence to suggest that he introduced St Valentine’s Day to replace it.
This is reinforced by the imagery associated with it like Cupid – the god of desire and affection – shooting his love-inducing arrows.
How did a Roman saint whose life was spent in ancient Rome end up in a shrine in Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin?
The story goes back to the 1800s. A famous preacher, Irish Carmelite Father John Spratt, gave such rousing sermons during his 1835 visit to Rome that an impressed Pope Gregory XVI decided to give him the remains of the Roman martyr Valentinius, popularly known as Saint Valentine. The gift bestowed upon Fr Spratt consisted of St Valentine’s remains (his head was not included) and a vial of his blood in a reliquary. This simple wooden box trimmed with a silk ribbon and wax seal travelled back to Ireland with Fr Spratt, arriving on the island in November of 1836.
In recent years, the question of whether the relics can be accurately attributed to St. Valentine has been raised, with churches in Rome, Terni, and Glasgow also claiming to have the remains of St. Valentine enshrined. But Ireland’s claim is the only one certified by a pope.
Since the 1960s, St Valentine’s relics have been set in a lovely little shrine in a small alcove to the right of the main altar of Whitefriar Street Church (also called Our Lady of Mount Carmel). The shrine consists of an altar, above which stands a life-size statue of St. Valentine. Below the altar lies a casket containing the reliquary, which includes the remains of the martyred saint in addition to a vessel with some of his blood. Once a year, on St. Valentine’s feast day, the reliquary is placed before the church’s main altar for special Valentine’s day sermons and a blessing of the rings for those with upcoming weddings.
It’s also possible to write a letter to St Valentine in Dublin. Many Irish people in love, seeking love or recovering from the loss of love, write to the Saint. As people have written tens of thousands of letters, Dublin is now home of the world’s biggest collection of love letters to St Valentine.
So there you have it – St Valentine’s epic journey from ancient Rome to modern Dublin.