St Valentine is one of the better known global saints, not only among Catholics and Christians but also to millions of others, mainly because he is associated with the feast day of lovers in the Western world.
A few days before February 14, millions of people scurry to florists to purchase bouquets of flowers, or else to shop for a heart-shaped balloon, a Valentine card, a box of chocolates, if not for a more expensive gift for one’s lover, partner or significant other. But very few pause to reflect about who the real St Valentine might have been.
Why romantic relationships are related to St Valentine is somewhat obscure. According to reliable ecclesiastical sources, there were several St Valentines down the centuries. There is some confusion as to whether St Valentine of Rome was the same person as the bishop of Terni, a city located 96km away from the capital. Besides these, there were as many as 12 other saints bearing the same name, one of whom lived and died in Ireland. There was even a female saint named Valentina. Of these, the most probable saint that fits the bill is the Roman, who was a doctor and priest who lived in the third century. He was put to death by the Roman emperor Claudius Gotikus II, on February 14, AD270. It is believed that this saint was buried in one of the Roman catacombs.
It seems that already by the end of the fifth century there was an accumulation of saints called Valentine. Thus, In AD496, Pope Gelasius decreed that all those Valentines who were recognised as saints were to share between them one day of the year, February 14, to be commemorated collectively. And thus it lasted until 1969, when the Roman Catholic Church had a change of heart. In the process of curtailing irrelevant feasts that honoured saints of dubious origin, the feast was unceremoniously removed from the Catholic Church calendar. Paradoxically, St Valentine is still acknowledged as one of the saints.
St Valentine protector of lovers
There are many legends on how St Valentine came to be recognised as the patron saint of lovers. One of the more popular avers that, when towards the end of his life, St Valentine was arrested and thrown into prison to await execution, he miraculously cured the sick daughter of his gaoler. It is said that he even wrote a letter to the girl, which he signed ‘Your Valentine’.
Another legend holds that, in his lifetime, St Valentine secretly married couples who, according to the law established by the emperor, were forbidden to marry at a young age.
In England and in France, the custom of lovers celebrating Valentine’s Day dates back to the Middle Ages. February 14 (according to the ancient Julian calendar was equivalent to March 1 of the Gregorian Calendar established in October of 1582) was chosen as it was commonly observed that birds’ mating season started about this time. This natural phenomenon was noted by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in a poem he wrote in 1375, to honour the first anniversary of the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia: “For this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
The custom for lovers to send amorous cards to one another started in earnest in the US some time during the 1840s by a certain Esther A. Howland, an artist and entrepreneur, daughter of a bookshop and stationery owner in Massachusetts. After she had received a Valentine card from a business associate of her father’s, she thought she could produce cards that were even more attractive than the one she received. Thus, she designed cards that contained romantic drawings and romantic verses, adorned with lace, silk and colourful ribbons.
Her cards were a great success and she soon established a small production line at home but later moved to a factory. She also started to produce cards for Christmas and birthdays, calling her business, The New England Valentine Company. Billions of cards of all shapes and sizes must been sold worldwide since then. It is believed that some 145 million Valentine cards are nowadays purchased every year.
Some 145 million Valentine cards are believed to be purchased every year
St Valentine and Malta
Malta not only celebrates Lovers’ Day on February 14, but also honours the saintly Valentine relics (Maltese: korp sant) that are kept in the parish church of the Annunciation at Balzan. These relics were brought to Malta in 1784 by the capitular canon Mgr Lorenzo Grech Delicata. In 1820, Mgr Grech Delicata, who was from Balzan, donated the holy relics to the parish. After they were exposed for veneration in the church, there evolved gradual devotion to the saint within the Balzanese community. Thus, in 1825, for the very first time ever, a baby born to a family in the village was named Valent by its parents. In 1828, another baby was christened Valentinu.
Devotion to the saint flourished when, in 1837, the pope decreed that a plenary indulgence could be received by the faithful on St Valentine’s Day. From 1835 onwards, a sung mass (Maltese: għasar) and a eulogy (paniġierku) were held on the feast day, a tradition that continued until 1857. The parish also encouraged veneration in 1861 by distributing religious images of St Valentine on cloth medallions (Maltese: labti) to the parishioners. In 1876, six babies were christened Valentino or some similar derivation.
At about this time, some enthusiasts decided to hold an annual festive celebration in honour of the saint at Balzan. The celebrations evolved into the secondary feast of Balzan, after that of the Annunciaton (Il-Lunzjata), the titular of the parish. The celebrations became well established, augmented by funds collected throughout the year by the organisers. However, the celebrations were not held in February but early in June. A philharmonic band from outside the village was invited to play during one of the feast days. In 1874, the renowned maestro Paolo Nani was invited to direct the concert. Some fireworks were also let off. As customary at the time and until the early 1970s in the 20th century, organisers abstained from holding an event that would be at par with the titular feast of the same parish. Eventually the feast went into decline and today the saint is only celebrated with a mass.
Nevertheless, the relics claimed to be those of St Valentine are still prominently exhibited on the side altar that is dedicated to St Michael in the nave of the church.
Patron saint of epileptics and beekeepers
It is interesting to note that St Valentine, apart from being the patron of lovers, is also the patron saint of persons suffering from epilepsy. Furthermore, Valentine is also acknowledged as the patron saint of beekeepers. There does not seem to be a common factor that connects these three roles unless one muses that St Valentine safeguards both beekeepers and lovers from physical (bee stings) and emotional pain, for those touched by the arrow of Cupid. Or is it Eros?
The information about the reverence of St Valentine in Balzan has mostly been based on an article published in 2007 by Mgr Ġwann Grech Dimech.
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