By David J. Glenn
When you celebrate this Valentine's Day with your spouse, love interest or significant other (choose the wording), you probably won't be thinking about the violent origins of the romantic holiday.
That's why we're telling you about it now, two weeks beforehand.
St. Valentine was a Christian priest in third-century Rome – not a very easy position to be in, especially under Emperor Claudius II.
Claudius was faithful to the Roman gods and had little use for Christians. He did, though, have a great need for soldiers to fight his battles. When he had trouble recruiting young men for his military, he assumed it was because they were too busy falling in love and getting married and did not want to leave their loves (never mind that his wars were brutal and not particularly popular).
What's an autocratic emperor to do? Cancel all engagements and marriages, of course.
St. Valentine, with the help of St. Marius, performed marriage ceremonies for couples anyway – in secret.
He was discovered, and for the terrible crime Claudius sentenced him to be beaten to death, with his head cut off for good measure.
The sentence was carried out on Feb. 14, 269 A.D.
Legend has it that while St. Valentine was on Rome's version of Death Row, he befriended the jailer's daughter. On his execution day, he left a note of farewell to her, signing it “From your Valentine.”
Actually Feb. 14 had already been a romantic day in ancient Rome. On the eve of the Feb. 15 holiday of Lupercalia – a fertility festival honoring the Roman wolf-god, Lycaeus – the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl's name from the jar and then be partners with her for the celebrations. Sometimes the pairing would last for a full year, and the young people would fall in love and marry.
In fifth-century Rome, Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 as a day to honor Valentine, who became not only the patron saint of lovers but also of patients suffering from epilepsy, a disease Valentine had himself.
England and other European countries have a long tradition of celebrating Valentine's Day (except in mid-17th century England under the iron-fisted rule of Oliver Cromwell, who considered the holiday immoral). Many of the customs through the Middle Ages harked back to the Roman days – such as young men picking names of girls from a bowl. They would place the names of the hoped-for sweethearts on their sleeves, a practice reflected in the modernday expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve.”
In Wales, wooden “love spoons” were given as gifts on Feb. 14. They were generally decorated with keys, keyholes, and hearts to convey the message that the recipient held the keys to the giver's heart.
In another tradition still practiced today in some countries, young men would give an item of clothing to the girl. If she kept it, it would mean she would marry him.
Birds had a special meaning on the day. It was believed that if a young woman saw a robin flying overhead on Feb. 14, she was destined to marry a sailor. A sparrow would portend she would marry a poor man but would be happy. If she saw a goldfinch, she would marry a rich man.
Of course, all this was before video dating, the Internet, personal ads, and singles bars.
Then again, maybe pulling names out of a bowl wasn't such a bad idea.
Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at email@example.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.