The National Catholic Review

That’s a good question. How tell? Lovers, maybe, mostly apprehensive or disappointed ones? His namesakes, who regard him as their patron? St. Valentine is invoked on Feb. 14 each year, his feast day remembered with hearts and flowers, love/dove birds and the goddess Venus’s chubby little boy, Cupid. We send affectionate messages on Valentine’s Day to our own loves: sweetheart, spouse, child, parent or significant other. We are urged by various vendorsgreeting card companies, florists, jewelers, confectioners, balloon purveyors et al. to express our deathless devotion on this benevolent saint’s day.

Countless hearts continue to be pierced with Cupid’s arrows or otherwise declared broken in the name of St. Valentine. Prior to his holiday, Roman swains would put the names of young ladies in a box. Those drawn became their partners in lavish festivities. By the fifth century, however, Christianity was fairly well established, and the dominant clergy disapproved of such wild carousing. So they endeavored to abolish the holiday, substituting the third-century Valentine for old pagan Pan. Some customs die hard, even though the names of martyrs were substituted in the hatbox.

But what about the love-bugging saint? Valentine was in Rome at the time of Claudius II. That emperor was concerned about too many young men marrying, and banned such unions. Single males, he was convinced, made fiercer soldiers, better at fighting to expand the empire if they were free of family responsibilities. Valentine defied the rule and went right on marrying many of them secretly, until he was arrested. When he refused to renounce his suspect faith in the crucified Jesus, called the Christ, he was clubbed to death and beheaded in 269 A.D. (It was Pope Gelasius I, two centuries later, who designated the 14th of February St. Valentine’s Day.)

Prior to that, the Romans were whooping it up on the 15th the feast of Lupercalia, which honored a pastoral deity named Lupercus (another name for Pan). He was a merry, mischievous god, son of Hermes of the winged heels. He had the head, chest and arms of a man and the horns and legs of a goat. (A small stone replica of him winks out of the blue myrtle that is rampant in my backyard garden. By summer he’s conveniently hidden in my imaginary reed-weeds.) The pagan festival celebrated fertility as far back as Rome’s fabled founders, Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a she-wolf in a cave called Lupercal. The occasion encouraged the sacrifice of goats and dogs.

But back to Valentine. While he was in prison awaiting execution, he was free to stretch through a window of his cell and pluck the leaves of nearby violets. He pricked them with encouraging messages, which were flown by white doves to his grieving followers. Flowers and birds, therefore, have every right to adorn our contemporary love-missiles. Birds are believed to begin their mating rituals on his feast day, billing and cooing with renewed vigor.

Certainly the occasion has been woefully commercialized. What potential for profit hasn’t? Nobody wants to be elbowed out of the act. I like the verse John Donne wrote about him:

Hail, Bishop Valentine! whose day this is.
All the air is thy diocese.
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners.

So, who prays to St. Valentine? More than we imagine, probably. Hallmark. Fashion gurus, dressing us with head-to-toe outfits, including unmentionables decorated with cupids, hearts and flowers. Purveyors of sentimental gifts must pray fervently to St. Valentine or to the commerce-gods he might indulge. I, too, once prayed to him. At age 19, I had begun dating the man of my dreams, who had no thought of getting serious. So I suspected he would be careless about the love-holiday looming. My intended, even in the Depression years, was employed by an art agency. Most of my contemporaries didn’t even have a job. He drove a Ford roadster and, on his grand $60 weekly salary, could afford Saturday night double features at the Palace.

As the 14th approached, I half-heartedly asked St. Valentine to remember me and him. (It wasn’t proper in those days for a girl to make the first move.) With trembling hands I reached inside the mailbox on that Great Day, and withdrew the small, neatly printed envelope. There was the very first Valentine from my lifetime love, still preserved past half a century of fulfillment. The message was cautious, but I cherished it: This simple little Valentine/ Plainly goes to show, I think a lot of someone/ Who’s mighty nice to know. And at the bottom, Love, Bob.

Rack it up, young lovers of today, and indulge my remembrance. I still sing with Anna in The King and I, I know how it feels to have wings on your heels.... I’ve had a love of my own like yours. I’ve had a love of my own.

You should be so blest.

Alma Roberts Giordan, a regular contributor to America, writes from Watertown, Conn.

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