Here’s the Real Story Behind St. Valentine’s Day
I generally utilize all my vacation time leading small private tours to Rome. Although I enjoy it because I love the Eternal City, and because I love to see people bewildered by the beauty of the city, it is indeed work for me. We have long days with little sleep, and I am on the clock, bringing people around and explaining to them what they are seeing. When leading these tours I generally stick to the same routes and sites, but from time to time I will venture to places that are less familiar, and I did just that during my most recent tour.
Though I had already been there a few times, during this last tour I brought the group to a church called Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The church is old, dating back to the 6th century, but it’s not its age that draws the crowds; rather it’s an old drain cover people go to see. The “Bocca della Verita” (Mouth of Truth) is a massive drain cover from the ancient Roman period. It is in the image of a large face with an open mouth, and according to tradition if you place your hand in the mouth, and if you are guilty of adultery it will bite your hand. This of course is a silly tradition, but people like it as a photo op, so you generally have to wait in line to have the chance to test your fidelity.
The group I brought to Rome this last time was in no mood to stand in line to see the old drain cover, so instead we went through the rest of the ancient church. On one of the side altars was a simple reliquary holding the clearly visible skull of St. Valentine. It made me wonder just who this saint was. In western culture St. Valentine has become hugely popular because of February 14th and the celebration of lovers. But does anyone really know anything about the man who lends his name to such a popular holiday? No. No one does. There is just simply speculation, none of which can be confirmed.
We had one pope by the name of Valentine who reigned for 40 days in 827 AD, but he is not a saint, so the holiday cannot be named for him. There are three other options in the official list of saints, which is called “Martyrologies.” One of the early lists of martyologies has three different saints named Valentine; all of them are celebrated on February 14th. But any information about them is scant at best. One was a priest who lived in Rome. Another was a bishop who was in a place called Interamna. Both of these Saint Valentines died martyrs’ deaths in the third century. On the same date is another martyred Valentine who was killed for the faith in Africa, also from the third century. That is all we know about them. They are examples of saints who have been lost to history and who undoubtedly lived holy lives and sacrificed themselves for the faith to the point of death. Because of the lack of record keeping we know nothing more of the three St. Valentines who just so happen to all share the same feast day of February 14th. In other words, I have no idea whose skull I was actually looking at in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin!
So why is it that they are the patron saints of lovers? There are different theories but the one that seems to be the most acceptable really has nothing to do with the saints themselves but with a legend associated with the date of the 14th of February. According to ancient tradition it was thought that birds began to find their mates on that date during the second and shortest month of the year. And because there was a time when everything was culturally Catholic it was only natural to see what saint’s feast day fell on an important date. Because there were three Saint Valentines all on the same date it was only natural to name the day after St. Valentine(s).
The practice of sending “Valentines” to loved ones and mates is not new. We have records of the practice going all the way back to the 1300s. Of course the holy men who share the same date and name would never have had a clue as to what was going to become of their heroic faith and how it would eventually come to mean something very different. In fact the Church doesn’t even have a liturgical feast day for St. Valentine anymore, and if your go to daily Mass on February 14th you likely won’t hear a thing about the three St. Valentines. You will hear a lot about Sts. Cyril and Methodius, two canonized brothers who were missionaries to the Slavic people. So on February 14th this year instead of sending a card and flowers to your wife or girlfriend, send your Slovenian friends a card and wish them a happy Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day!