True origin of Valentine's Day calls for compassion

Feb. 10, 2005

By LIZ GROH, news editor

Everyone knows that Valentine's Day is named for St. Valentine, but no one knows for sure who he was or why Valentine's Day became the official day of amorous expression.

In fact, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus -- all of whom were martyred.

Not sounding very romantic so far, is it?

One legend -- my favorite -- dictates that Valentine was a priest serving in third-century Rome, a time when the Roman Empire was still an impressive and conquering presence in the world.Emperor Claudius II, in an effort to augment and improve his army, decided single men made better soldiers than those with wives and children and consequently forbade all young Roman men from marrying.

According to the legend, St. Valentine defied Claudius and performed marriage ceremonies for young lovers in secret.

Eventually, he was discovered and put to death for his treasonous actions.

Another legend depicts Valentine as a rescuer of imprisoned Christians, and still another places Valentine in prison himself. While in jail, Valentine fell in love with a young woman would often visited him in his confinement.

Some suggest it was the jailor's daughter. The legend says that, before his death, Valentine wrote his love a letter, which he signed "From your Valentine."

Interestingly, the one similarity shared by all three legends is compassion.

In the first, Valentine sacrifices his own life to enrich the lives of others through marriage.

Though the second legend does not incorporate the idea of romantic love that has long been associated with St. Valentine, it is rooted in compassionate love -- the self-sacrificial love it takes to risk one's own life for the sake of others'.

The third legend seems most in line with today's idea of Valentine's Day, wherein St. Valentine plays the pining lover.

The compassionate aspect of this one is more subtle, but definitely existent in Valentine's love, who visits him in jail -- remember, the legend states that they met once he was incarcerated. It takes a compassionate woman to visit a man she doesn't know while he is in jail, let alone love him.

Some historians argue that Valentine's Day wasn't instated to honor the love and compassion of St. Valentine at all, but to coincide with (and eventually eradicate) the pagan Lupercalia festival, which began on Feb. 15.

The holiday was dedicated to the she-wolf who, according to Roman legend, cared for the cities young founders, Romulus and Remus.

The festival's climax came when the names of single young Roman women were placed in a drum and drawn out by single men in a sort of lottery, to be paired together for the coming year. Many of these matches reportedly ended in marriage, according to the History Channel Web site.

Given our modern society's emphasis on the romantic aspects of Valentine's Day and the tradition of doting on one's love to the exclusion of all others, it is interesting to see that Valentine's Day may well have been established to honor the self-sacrificing compassion of a Roman priest or the lottery-style pairing of young Roman singles.

Whatever its origin, Valentine's Day has become a day to celebrate love.

The modern world has narrowed this tradition to focus on romantic love, but I believe it is important to remember that compassionate love for those in need of assistance may well be at the root of this annual holiday.