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Valentine’s Day is celebrated annually on February 14th and has been celebrated for centuries around the world. Most of us associate this holiday with the giving of cards and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, date night with the one you love, and the obligatory making sure your kids lug enough cards and candy to school for all their classmates. It’s also the holiday known for those chubby, angel-baby cupids with the poised bows and arrows, ready to take aim at hearts and make people fall in love.
But what is the real truth behind this day of celebrating all things romance and love? Who was this Saint Valentine anyway?
Historians do not fully know the origins of Valentine’s Day. Some say it was a way for the early Catholic church to Christianize a mid-February pagan Roman holiday named ‘Lupercalia’ that celebrated fertility. Men of the order of Roman priests known as Luperci would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification and would then go about the streets touching women with pieces of the goat hide that had been dipped into the sacrificial blood. Women who were slapped with the hide believed they would be more fertile for the next year. After this ritual, young women would put their names in a big pot, and bachelors would choose a name and pair up with that woman for the following year. Often, these matches became marriages. Lupercalia was outlawed in the fifth century, and in the year 496 Pope Gelasius deemed February 14th the Feast of St. Valentine.
While this is one theory, the holiday got its name from one or more than one of the ‘Saint Valentines’ canonized by the Catholic church. There were many men named Valentinus, or Valentine, who were declared Saints throughout the years by the Roman Catholic Church. However, there are two legends from the third century listed in the Catholic book of saints as martyrs who were buried on February 14th. One is Valentine of Rome, said to be a priest; the other is named Valentine of Terni, who was believed to be a physician and priest. They were canonized after being put to death by the Roman emperor Claudius II because they were helping Christians, who were being persecuted at that time. By some accounts, one of the Valentines penned a letter from his jail cell to his jailer’s daughter, who he had healed of blindness, and signed it “from your Valentine.” Another legend says that Valentine defied the emperor by secretly marrying couples in order to keep the husbands from being forced to go to war. Whatever the real story, Valentine’s Day became a feast day for remembrance of the acts of kindness these priests displayed. By the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day became associated with lovers most likely due to a poem penned by the famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer. It was titled “Parliament of the Fowls,” and talked about how birds gather in the early spring – on ‘seynt valentynes day’ – to choose their mates for the year.
Although there are conflicting stories of its origins, today Valentine’s Day is really a commercial holiday associated with acts of love, romance, and kindness.
People worldwide honor the ones they love with candy, flowers, and cards. Christians should be able to celebrate this holiday, appreciating those in the ancient past who sacrificed their lives for others. Just as Christ’s love redeemed us, the sacrifices martyrs made for the church redeem the heinous acts of pagan rituals. In the famous “Love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul reminds us that,
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. … And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
A day dedicated to remembering love and responding to others with love is a holiday well worth celebrating.
What should Christians do to make this day special? It’s simple: Show love and kindness to others. On this Valentine’s Day, remember to thank God for the sacrifices others made throughout the years to pass down and preserve the Christian faith. Then make Valentine’s Day your personal mission to love those around you. Go out of your way to do something helpful for someone else. Why not pay the drive-through order for the car behind you? Look for ways to help others and honor them. Drop a note in the old-school snail mail to tell someone they are loved. Find someone who may be alone or lonely on Valentine’s Day and make them feel special. Remember not only on Valentine’s Day, but every day, the love that was poured out for you and make it your goal to love others as you were first loved. When you love well, you fulfill what Jesus called the greatest commandments in Mark 12:31: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
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