Celebrating St. Valentine’s Day is for the birds. Or maybe, it would be better to say that celebrating St. Valentine’s Day is from the birds.
At least one explanation of why the Feast of St. Valentine was chosen as a day for love and romance has to do with a belief dating back to the Middle Ages that halfway through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair.
Geoffrey Chaucer, in his epic poem, Parliament of Foules, wrote that it is on St. Valentine’s Day “When every foul (fowl) cometh there to choose his mate.” Chaucer’s work popularized the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day in England. The celebration then spread to France and the rest of Europe.
From this sprang the custom of writing love letters and sending tokens of affection on Feb. 14.
Our Feb. 14 celebrations of the saint – actually there are records of at least four saints named Valentine – tend toward romantic dinners, kisses and heart-shaped chocolates. It has nothing to do with the remembrance of any of the Valentines, three of whom were believed to be martyrs.
According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, two of the four Valentines celebrated today are listed in early martyrologies as having been killed on Feb. 14. They are believed to have been martyred in the later part of the third century. One is described as a priest from Rome, another is listed as a bishop from what is now modern day Terni, a city about 60 miles from Rome.
The third St. Valentine is reported to have been martyred in Africa with a number of companions. The fourth St. Valentine was an Italian bishop.
While Valentine is popularly thought of as the patron saint of sweethearts, that is not exactly accurate. In sacred art, St. Valentine is frequently depicted with a disabled or epileptic child at his feet. Other times he is depicted carrying a sword. Not only is he the patron of engaged people and happy marriages, but also of beekeepers and young people. He is invoked against epilepsy, fainting and the plague.
By the way, today – Feb. 14 – it is just as appropriate to wish a loved one “Happy St. Cyril and St. Methodius Day” as it is to say “Happy Valentine’s Day.” That is because this day is not the feast day of St. Valentine only.
St. Cyril and St. Methodius were ninth century brothers who were known as the “Apostles of the Slavs” as they ministered to the Slavic peoples of what is now Eastern Europe. They were early proponents of celebrating Mass in the vernacular of the local population. They are the patron saints of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina and all of Europe.
In addition to those saints, about 30 martyrs, religious, and others who lived virtuous lives are celebrated by the Church on this day. They include: Blessed Vincent of Siena, St. Ammonius, St. Vitalis, St. Felicula, St. Zeno, St. Nostrianus of Naples, St. Paulien, St. Proculus, St. Ephebus, St. Apollonius, St. Theodosius of Vaison, Blessed Nicholas Palea, St. Cyrion, St. Bassian, St. Agatho, St. Moses, St. Dionysius, St. Ammonius, St. Eleuchadius of Ravenna, St. John Baptist of the Conception, St. Lienne (Leone) of Poitiers, St. Maro of Beit-Marun, St. Bassus, St. Antony, St. Protolicus, St. Conran, St. Abraham of Harran, Blessed Angelus of Gualdo, St. Antoninus of Sorrento, and St. Auxentius of Bithynia.
By the way, those Xs we use to symbolize kisses when we sign our cards also have a religious significance. This act of placing an X with a signature goes back to the medieval legal practice of placing the sign of St. Andrew – an X-shaped cross – by one’s signature to symbolize honesty and trustworthiness. At that time, contracts would not be considered valid unless a St. Andrew’s Cross appeared. Both parties would kiss the document near the cross to signify compliance. As centuries elapsed, the X became the symbol of a kiss.
So, the story of Valentine’s Day may not be that romantic, but we can still be thankful that we have today to indulge in chocolates and hearts and flowers and share our affections with those whom we love.