Roses not part of historical Valentine's Day

Chocolates, love poems and red roses. The modern symbols of Valentine’s Day are a far cry from the burning, stoning and beheading thought to have been endured by St. Valentine, the man for whom the holiday was originally celebrated.

Valentinus, or Valens, was a Christian martyr who, according to Christian tradition, was killed by the Romans before 300 A.D, said David Michelson, an assistant professor in the history department.            Although he was executed before Roman persecution of Christians became widespread, St. Valentine, like many other Christians, was targeted for not believing in the Roman gods.

“Early written historical sources for this story are non-existent, so we only know what Christian oral traditions preserved, which is not much other than the name and the fact that he was killed as part of a Roman imperial attempt to reduce the presence and influence of Christians in the empire,” Michelson said. “Even the name may not be his legal name, but a nickname given after the fact in honor of his death since it means ‘Strong One.’”

Although the story outlining St. Valentine’s death is generic, followers of Christianity honored St. Valentine, and many other Saints, for their bravery in the face of death, Michelson said.

“Early Christians took great pride and comfort in those who were willing to die at the hands of the Romans instead of renouncing their faith,” Michelson said. “They also believed that these holy people were watching them from heaven like a great cloud of witnesses encouraging those on earth to reach on to their heavenly goal.”

Valentine’s Day itself originated from the Christian reverence of Saints, Michelson said.

“Most saints had one particular day in which their ‘heavenly birthday’ i.e. their earthly death, was celebrated,” Michelson said. “Eventually Feb. 14 was selected as the date for St. Valentine, though there is no record of when he actually died. On this particular day, the saint would be celebrated and those who had particular prayer requests might ask the saint to take their requests before God as an intercessor.” The holiday’s shift from honoring a Christian martyr, to exchanging love poems and Hallmark cards began with Geoffrey Chaucer in the late fourteenth century.

In his article “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February,” Jack B. Oruch said Chaucer’s poems “Parlement of Foules” and “Complaint of Mars” were the first to associate St. Valentine with images of love. In the poems, St. Valentine facilitates love between both bird and human lovers while creating some of the conventions still connected with Valentine’s Day today. Chaucer also uses floral imagery and pairs the ceremonial choosing of partners on the holiday.

Ian Crawford, a UA graduate with a bachelor’s degree in human environmental sciences, said Valentine’s Day, like several other popular holidays, has become Americanized over the years.

“I get annoyed with people who say it’s a made up holiday Hallmark uses to make money,” Crawford said. “While I’m sure they do make millions off of it, I don’t know a holiday that hasn’t been tweaked to fit our needs. Christmas, Easter, even Thanksgiving have all been modified. While the pilgrims and Native Americans did exist and make peace on that day, Thanksgiving has come to represent a time where people recognize and appreciate what they’re thankful for.”

Because the story of St. Valentine wasn’t recorded, the Catholic Church fabricated his, among many others, nearly 200 years after he was thought to have lived, Crawford said. In 1960, the Catholic Church declared St. Valentine’s tale to be untrue but the Eastern Orthodox continues to celebrate his life on Feb. 14.

Although the holiday means different things to different denominations, Crawford said it has distinct implications for men and women.

“Valentine’s Day really has devolved from something with meaning,” Crawford said. “I think it’s a way for girls to celebrate their anniversary again and get presents, but guys see it as just another chance to score.”

For more historical information and opportunities to become involved in a research project about the history of Christianity in the Middle East, contact David Michelson and visit syriac.ua.edu. Michelson teaches courses on Roman history, Christian history and Middle Eastern history.

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