‘ROSES are red, violets are blue …’
It can only mean one thing – St Valentine’s Day is upon us again and millions of cards, flowers and chocolates will be exchanged between loved ones across the world this weekend.
But behind the modern commercial frenzy around St Valentine’s Day there is also a religious story.
St Valentine’s Day on February 14 is undoubtedly one of the better known feast days and yet the history of its patron saint is shrouded in mystery.
The Catholic Church has recognised at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.
Some stories portray Valentine as a 3rd century priest in Rome at the time of Emperor Claudius II.
Claudius, who liked to go to war a lot, decided that single men made better soldiers than married men so he outlawed marriage for young men.
But Valentine defied him and continued to perform secret marriages for young couples.
When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered his death.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape Roman prisons.
Another story has him actually sending the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself.
It was alleged that while he was in prison, Valentine fell in love with a young girl, possibly the jailer’s daughter, and before his death, wrote her a letter, which he signed ‘From your Valentine’.
But why February 14 as his feast day?
Some people believe Valentine’s Day was celebrated on February 14 to commemorate the anniversary of his death or burial around 270 AD.
Others claim the Christian Church may have decided to celebrate his feast day in February in an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan Lupercalia festival, which began at the ides of February – February 15.
Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and the founders of the Roman Empire, Romulus and Remus.
During the festival all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn and the city’s bachelors would then pick a name from the urn and become paired for the year with the woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
The story goes that around 498 AD Pope Gelasius deemed the Roman ‘lottery’ system for romantic pairing un-Christian and outlawed it and declared February 14 as St Valentine’s Day.
By the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.
At the time, the English and French also believed that February 14 was the beginning of the birds’ mating season.
Today there is still some dispute about where St Valentine’s relics can be found.
There is no doubt one Valentine was martyred because Pope St Julius I (336-356) built a basilica on the Flaminian Way, leading from the city over the tomb of one of the Valentines.
In 1877 archaeologists discovered the site of a subterranean cemetery near the basilica which contained a number of artifacts from the period 318-523, among them fragments with the name Valentine inscribed.
But a Carmelite church in Dublin did claim, and still does claim, to have Valentine’s relics.
In the 17th century, a Dublin Carmelite priest, Fr John Spratt, claimed he had been given the relics of Valentine to take back to Dublin.
Fr Spratt, described as a man of boundless energy, was very much involved with the poor and destitute of the Liberties area of inner Dublin.
He began building Whitefriar St Church in 1825.
It is said that in 1835, Fr Spratt visited Rome where his reputation as a preacher had preceded him and he was asked to preach at the famous Jesuit church, the Gesu.
Rome’s elite flocked to hear him and it is believed Pope Gregory XVI was so impressed he gave him the remains of St Valentine as a gift.
The relics arrived in Dublin on November 10, 1836 and were taken to Whitefriar St Church where the Archbishop of Dublin received them and presided at a High Mass to mark the occasion.
They became an overnight sensation and people flocked to see them.
However, when Fr Spratt died, devotion began to disappear and the relics were relegated to a back room.
The relics were rediscovered about 40 years ago, during major renovations to the church and were restored in a specially designed altar and shrine.
The oldest known valentine still in existence was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.
The greeting, which was written in 1415, is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.
A number of years later, it is believed King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
One thing is certain about St Valentine, whoever he was, he was prepared to die for his God.
It was the ultimate sacrifice of love.