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Absalom Jones and Richard Allen

Around this time of year, many persons ask:

"Who was St. Valentine, and what does he have to do wit sending romantic cards and messages?"

St. Valentine is a martyr from before 312, commemorated on the 14th of February. Probably he was martyred on that date, but nothing else is known of him. (A Valentine, priest of Rome (in Italian; English here), and a Valentine, bishop of Ternia (Interamna), are both commemorated on 14 February, and now generally assumed to be the same person.)

In many parts of Europe, it was once said that birds began to pair off for the nesting season in mid-February. Since our forebears often spoke of a given day by naming a saint connected with it rather than by giving the month and the number of the day, we find them saying that birds choose their mates on St. Valentine's day. That is all. If a major earthquake took place on Columbus Day, it would probably be known to future generations as the Columbus Day earthquake, but it would be a mistake to try to connect it with Columbus.

There are several stories making the rounds that try to explain the connection between valentines and Valentine. Every one that I have heard sounds like an explanation made up after the fact, probably by a Victorian clergyman lecturing to children. There are other explanations attempting to connect it with various pagan festivals of the early spring. Again, I am not impressed. That young men should send romantic messages in the springtime both in 90 BCE and in 1990 AD does not require a conspiracy theory to explain it.

Afterthought: The chief authority for the statement that 14 February is the date when birds were thought to pair off is Chaucer, who writes of "Valentine's day, when every fowl doth choose his mate." However, it has been pointed out that in addition to the two obscure Valentines commemorated on 14 February, there is a still more obscure one associated with 2 May, and that Chaucer may have had this date in mind. Two arguments for supposing that he did: (1) May seems more likely than February for birds to start building nests--but I am no expert on birds of England; (2) King Richard II was formally betrothed to Anne of Bohemia on 3 May, and Chaucer may have intended a reference to the royal couple. He was a member of the Royal Court, and was often invited to recite his own poems before the King and Queen and others, and his poems contain at least one other indirect reference to the Royal Marriage. If we accept this theory, then we must suppose that, after all memory of the Martyr Valentine had died out in England, Chaucer's statement was misunderstood as referring to the earlier date.

written by James Kiefer


Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your Love in the heart of your holy martyr Valentine: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.