The history behind the way we celebrate St Valentine and St Valentine’s Day started long ago in the days of ancient Rome. Back then, it was customary to honour Juno, the goddess tasked with looking after the women of Rome, during the month of February. A feast known as Lupercalia was celebrated in the middle of the month, and it involved a number of courting rituals. Young men would pick the name of a woman from a jar at random and spend the duration of the festival with her. Sometimes this was the beginning of true love, and the couple would go on to get married.
A key characteristic of the Roman Empire under Emperor Claudius – a characteristic that had a lot to do with its eventual fall – was the constant state of war. The Emperor strongly disapproved of any traditions that pushed men and women into marriage, because as far as he was concerned a man’s duty was to fight. Young single men were ideal fighters, as they had no family to distract them. So Claudius decreed that both engagements and marriages were banned. Despite this, a number of priests continued to carry out the Christian covenant of marriage. Valentine was one such priest. It should be noted at this point that there were a number of early Christian saints called named Valentine, but the story that persists to this day is that associated with St Valentine of Rome, who lived during a period of intense Christian prosecution and who became the protagonist of the St Valentine’s Day story as we understand it today.
Legend tells that as a result of his disobedience, Valentine was detained and hauled before the Prefect of Rome. He was then condemned to death and decapitation. It is said that before he was arrested, Valentine had dedicated a great deal of time to teaching a young blind woman, known only as Julia, about the Christian faith. The night before his execution was scheduled, he wrote to her, urging her to keep to her Christian faith and signing it simply ‘From Your Valentine’. The very next day, the 14th of February 269 AD, he was put to death beside a gate that eventually became known as Porta Valentini in his honour.
When Julia received Valentine’s note, she found a beautiful yellow crocus tucked inside it, and the story goes that as she gazed sightlessly upon the brightly coloured flower, it miraculously restored her eyesight.
Valentine was laid to rest in Rome’s St Hippolytus’ Cemetery, within the grounds of the Church of Praxedes. Julia is said to have planted an almond tree near the graveside, and to this day an almond tree is regarded as a symbol of friendship and love. Over two hundred years later, in the year 496, Pope Gelasius I decreed that February the 14th would henceforth be known Saint Valentine’s Day.
Over the intervening centuries, there have been a variety of various different monasteries, basilicas and churches built over the grave of St. Valentine. In the early nineteenth century, when some further building work was taking place, St. Valentine’s remains were discovered alongside a vial of his blood and an assortment of other reliquary.
In the year 1835, an Irish priest named Father John Spratt visited Rome. He was famed far and wide for his skills as an orator and his dedication to Dublin’s many destitute and poor. He had also managed a project to build a new church on Whitefriar Street – the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. During his time in Rome, Father John was invited to preach, and his sermons instantly became a firm favourite with Rome’s elite. As a result, he was showered with tokens of thanks from the Church’s hierarchy. One such token was one gifted by Pope Gregory XVI himself, who gave him a casket that contained the earthly remains of St. Valentine. In those days, every time a new church was constructed and a new alter built, the remains of a martyr were set into the altar as a way of reminding the congregation of how Jesus had sacrificed himself to save humanity, and also how many of his followers had martyred themselves in the name of their faith over the years. So the reliquary was seen as a reminder that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’, as the noted second-century priest Father Tertullian so succinctly put it.
Indeed, the lives of all known martyrs were regarded as a source of true inspiration for many Christians, and their remains and other relics were much sought after. Many chapels and crypts in the catacombs in Rome show evidence of this kind of early reverence for those who had given up their lives because of the strength of their beliefs.
The St. Valentine reliquary was sent to Dublin, where it arrived on the 10th of November 1836. With it was a letter of authenticity written by Cardinal Odescalchi. The relic formed the centrepiece in a devout procession when it travelled to the church on Whitefriar Street, where Archbishop Murray was waiting to receive it.
Following the death of Father John in 1871, much of the interest in the relics receded, and they were placed into storage. Then, during a major overhaul of the church during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the relics were put back into the spotlight, and a special shrine and alter were constructed to display them and enable visitors to venerate them. A celebrated Irish visual artist, Irene Broe, was commissioned to carve a dress that depicted the holy saint in a martyr’s red vestments and with a crocus in his hand. A crocus is one of the first flowers to bloom after the cold winter months, and this pretty spring flower has thus become intertwined with the mythology surrounding St. Valentine’s Day, falling as it does on the 14th of February.
Today St. Valentine’s shrine is visited all year round by engaged couples, who appeal to the saint to bless their relationship. Every year, on St. Valentine’s Day itself, a special Mass is held that includes a ring blessing for those couples whose weddings are imminent. On the 14th of February, the Reliquary is taken from its place under the side alter and is put in full view of the congregation on the high altar.
St. Valentine’s shrine is located on the right of the church looking from the back, and the casket itself resides under the beautiful marble alter in a partly concealed niche that is sheltered by an ornate glass and iron gate. The statue of the saint stands over the alcove, as if to protect it. The casket in which the relics lie is crafted from wood and is marked with Pope Gregory’s papal coat of arms on the top. Also on the top lie two sizeable gold plates which are inscribed with a facsimile of Cardinal Odescalchi’s letter of authenticity. Between the gold plates and under the papal coat of arms is a lighter plate that bears an inscription reiterating the authentic nature of the relics. The shrine is nearly always decorated with lit candles and freshly picked flowers left by visitors.
Whitefriar Street Church, home to the St. Valentine reliquary, is one of the largest and most famous in all Dublin. It is owned by the Carmelites, who have had a church in the area since the 1400s. This is reflected in the street name, as the name ‘Whitefriars’ was bestowed upon the Carmelites when they arrived in England and Ireland seeking a refuge from the prosecution they faced in the Holy Land following the Fifth Crusade. The original church was established in the year 1279, and the building that stands there now was built in 1825.
The church, while being most strongly connected with St Valentine and St Valentine’s Day, also boasts a long association with some key figures in the struggle for Irish Independence, including Eamon De Valera, Kevin Boland (whose funeral mass took place there) and Kevin O’Higgins (who was married there).
More than a thousand years after the untimely death of St Valentine, his legend began to be associated with the medieval concept of ‘courtly love’. It is possible that this development was influenced by the fact that the middle of February was believed to be the time of year when birds were most likely to mate. From that point forward, St Valentine’s Day has become increasingly linked to romantic love, and over the last fifty years in particular, it has developed into a significant day in the calendar, both romantically and commercially. One thing is for certain: if you are planning on buying flowers for your loved one this February the 14th, make it crocuses and spare a thought for the man after whom the day is named.