Legends have occasionally crept into Christian history. Stories of some of the early martyrs, for example, handed down orally, have sometimes become embellished and romanticized. Such is the story of St. Valentine.
Two Valentines are actually described in the early church, but they likely refer to the same man — a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. According to tradition, Valentine, having been imprisoned and beaten, was beheaded on February 14, about 270, along the Flaminian Way.
Sound romantic to you? How then did his martyrdom become a day for lovers and flowers, candy and little poems reading Roses are red … ? According to legends handed down, Valentine undercut an edict of Emperor Claudius. Wanting to more easily recruit soldiers for his army, Claudius had tried to weaken family ties by forbidding marriage. Valentine, ignoring the order, secretly married young couples in the underground church. These activities, when uncovered, led to his arrest.
Furthermore, Valentine had a romantic interest of his own. While in prison he became friends with the jailer’s daughter, and being deprived of books he amused himself by cutting shapes in paper and writing notes to her. His last note arrived on the morning of his death and ended with the words “Your Valentine.”
In 496 February 14 was named in his honor. By this time Christianity had long been legalized in the empire, and many pagan celebrations were being “christianized.” One of them, a Roman festival named Lupercalia, was a celebration of love and fertility in which young men put names of girls in a box, drew them out, and celebrated lovemaking. This holiday was replaced by St. Valentine’s Day with its more innocent customs of sending notes and sharing expressions of affection.
Does any real truth lie behind the stories of St. Valentine? Probably. He likely conducted underground weddings and sent notes to the jailer’s daughter. He might have even signed them “Your Valentine.” And he probably died for his faith in Christ.
But he almost certainly never wrote, “Roses are red, violets are blue. … ”
This is Solomon’s most beautiful song. Kiss me tenderly! Your love is better than wine, And you smell so sweet. All the young women adore you; The very mention of your name Is like spreading perfume. (Song of Songs 1:1-3)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Feb. 14.