The red rose – a great symbol of love! February 14th is a day when cards and tokens of love are exchanged by lovers, spouses and partners. It is almost a rite of passage for young teenagers to buy or make cards in quantity and send them anonymously to the objects of their desires – or if all else fails – to send them to themselves, so as not to feel excluded when the peers arrive with barrowloads from every male in the area. We could be forgiven for thinking that Valentine’s day is an invention of Hallmark Cards, as tens of millions of Valentine cards are bought each year, but would we be correct? As well as cards, millions of flowers will be handed over as tokens of undying devotion to loved ones to mark the annual Love-day, the Feast of St Valentine.
But where did the tradition come from? Valentine’s or St Valentines’ Day is a celebration of the feast day of the Saint of that name. Scratch any religious ‘feast’ very gently and not far under the surface there will be a pagan or ancient celebration. In mid February, or the ides of February, there was the ancient fertility festival of Lupercalia where there appears to have been some ‘blooding ‘ ritual whereby young women were touched with the hides of freshly skinned animals. They then placed their names in a container. Young men would select a name and would be paired with the girl of his choice for the following year, and apparently marriage often ensued. This practice was outlawed in the 5th century about the same time as St Valentine’s Feast was announced.
Several men with the name Valentinus were martyred in the early church. One story suggests that a particular Valentinus was imprisoned for performing marriage ceremonies for soldiers. Soldiers were forbidden to marry as having a wife might distract them from their soldiery duties. When in prison,this particular Valentinus supposedly healed the daughter of his jailer and some stories suggest he fell in love with her. Prior to execution he is said to have written her a farewell note signed : “from your Valentine”. Whatever the origins, the Feast of St Valentine is marked in many cultures and communions – such as the Lutheran Church, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox.
In 1382, Chaucer composed a poem to mark the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, where he refers to Valentine:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
(For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,
when every bird cometh there to choose his mate)
By the 1600’s it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confections and sending greeting cards.
In 1850,Joseph R Chandler in an article entitled ‘St Valentine’s Day‘ in Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art , wrote:
‘The commercial revolution has loosed St Valentine Day from its previous moorings in folk culture and redirected it into new and little charted waters”.
And it would seem that this commercial revolution has continued unabated in the intervening 160+ years.
On November 10, 1836, a strange event was taking place in Dublin. A reliquary containing remains of St Valentine were brought in solemn procession to the Carmelite Church on Whitefriars Street. These had been the gift of Pope Gregory XVI in appreciation of Carmelite John Spratt who had visited Rome. John Spratt was as an eloquent preacher who ‘wowed’ both the elite of Rome and the Church itself. In Dublin he was a well- known and respected figure who worked tirelessly for the poor and disadvantaged in the Liberties area and who had built the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Whitefriars Street. The gift of relics was accompanied by a letter in Latin which translates as follows:
“We, Charles, by the divine mercy, Bishop of Sabina of the Holy Roman Church, Cardinal Odescalchi Arch Priest of the Sacred Liberian Basilica, Vicar General of our most Holy Father the Pope and Judge in Ordinary of the Roman Curia and of its Districts, etc, etc.
To all and everyone who shall inspect these our present letters, we certify and attest, that for the greater glory of the omnipotent God and veneration of his saints, we have freely given to the Very Reverend Father Spratt, Master of Sacred Theology of the Order of Calced Carmelites of the convent of that Order at Dublin, in Ireland, the blessed body of St Valentine, martyr, which we ourselves by the command of the most Holy Father Pope Gregory XVI on the 27th day of December 1835, have taken out of the cemetery of St Hippolytus in the Tiburtine Way, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood and have deposited them in a wooden case covered with painted paper, well closed, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with our seals and we have so delivered and consigned to him, and we have granted unto him power in the Lord, to the end that he may retain to himself, give to others, transmit beyond the city (Rome) and in any church, oratory or chapel, to expose and place the said blessed holy body for the public veneration of the faithful without, however, an Office and Mass, conformably to the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, promulgated on the 11th day of August 1691.
In testimony whereof, these letters, testimonial subscribed with our hand, and sealed with our seal, we have directed to be expedited by the undersigned keeper of sacred relics.
Rome, from our Palace, the 29th day of the month of January 1836.
Regd. Tom 3. Page 291
Philip Ludovici Pro-Custos”
All Catholic Churches have relics, usually contained in a cavity on the altar, or in a reliquary. The St Valentine relics are in a separate reliquary normally kept under a shrine to the Saint. It is not known what exactly is in the reliquary as it has never been opened. However it is recognized that there may be relics of this particular St Valentine in up to 10 different locations – not surprising when one thinks of the numbers of bones in a skeleton! But, no matter! Whitefriars Church in Dublin,marks the feast of St. Valentine each year with special ceremonies that includes the blessings of rings. A beautiful sentimental tradition attached the the most ecstatic emotion of LOVE!
Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers!