Here is a good explanation on the origins of Saint Valentine’s Day, which today has been truncated to Valentine’s Day. It is written by Ronald J. Rychlak of InsideCatholic titled simply St. Valentine’s Day.
The Catholic Church actually recognizes several different saints named Valentine or Valentinus (including St. Valentin Faustino Berri Ochoa, St. Valentine of Genoa, and St. Valentine of Strasbourg). Most people, however, trace the story of St. Valentine back to a Roman priest in the year 270. He was arrested and imprisoned for performing marriage ceremonies for Christian couples at a time when such ceremonies were prohibited (as married men were exempt from the Roman army). Valentine also may have aided other Christians who were being persecuted during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus (Claudius II).
Valentine was brought before the emperor and told to renounce his faith, but even under extreme torture he refused to do so. According to legend, couples whom he had married brought him flowers and gifts while he was in prison, which gave rise to the tradition of giving flowers and gifts in his honor.
Valentine tried to convert Emperor Claudius to Christianity, but his efforts were not well received: Claudius had Valentine executed outside Rome’s Flaminian Gate on February 14, 270. According to another legend, while still in captivity, Valentine restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. On the day before his execution, he sent her a farewell message and signed it, “from your Valentine.” That, of course, is said to have established another tradition.
More than two centuries later, in 496, Pope Gelasius marked February 14 as a celebration in honor of Valentine’s martyrdom. According to some accounts, this date was chosen to preempt a pagan fertility festival known as Lupercalia, which took place at about that same time. Lupercalia involved a lottery by which young people would draw the name of a mate for a year. With the new holiday, Gelasius instead had participants draw the name of a saint to emulate for a year.
Unfortunately, the heroic story of Valentine’s piety has been almost completely eclipsed by the “flowers, candy, and cards” holiday that we know today. Gelasius’s efforts to Christianize mid-February seem to have come to naught, and we are left in the ironic position of celebrating romance on a day named after a celibate priest.
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Happy Saint Valentine’s Day!
Hat tip to Rich Leonardi at Ten Reasons.