Will the Real Valentine Please Stand Up!

I realize that this title only connects to people like myself who have had a sufficient number of birthdays to remember a game show that was on TV a long time ago. It was called “What’s My Line?” The game went like this. The contestants had to ask questions that could be answered “Yes” or “No” to a group of four men or women who all claimed to be the same person. Perhaps the person was an inventor or a scientist or one who swam across the English Channel or was a technician at NASA. At the end of the show, the contestants all placed their guesses, and the host of the show would then ask, “Will the real ______ please stand up?” Then he/she would stand up and everyone would clap. Sometimes those watching could easily guess who the real person was, and other times it was quite hard. It was something like Balderdash on TV. Valentine’s Day gives us something of a “What’s My Line?” puzzle.

Historychannel.com and The Christian History Institute (christianhistoryinstitute.org) can help us a little here. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be celebrated by many people during the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers in all social classes commonly exchanged small tokens of affection or handwritten notes with each other. By the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, printed cards began to replace written letters. Ready-made cards were handier, allowing people to express their feelings without having to say anything. Cheaper postage rates also helped! Americans probably began exchanging handmade Valentines in the early 18th century. In about the 1840’s, Esther A. Howland began to sell the first mass-produced valentines in America.

According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day second only to Christmas in greeting card sales (Christmas comes in at an estimated cool 2.6 billion). Trivia question: About 85% of Valentines are purchased by whom: men or women? [answer: women. Surprised?][1]

By the way, what did you think about those little candy hearts with messages on them when you were in elementary school? Or, maybe you still give them out …. I must confess that in my distorted and sketchy memory, I somewhat liked them, or at least I think I did. You know, everyone wants to know he/she is loved, and even getting a candy heart that says, “You’re not a total loser” is better than nothing.

But back to our story. The historical person named Valentine is hard to identify. Two men named Valentinus (Valentine) were said to have been martyred at about the same time back in AD 269/270. Both were said to be buried right off of the same road, the Flaminian Way in Rome. Feasts remembering and honoring these two men were held on February 14 in the churches after that time. The date set for these feasts of remembrance may have been set because the men were killed for their faith in Jesus on those days, or it may have been set on February 14 in order to take the place of a Roman celebration that involved sexual immorality. I have called this practice “Cultural Replacement Therapy,” the Christian practice of substituting something good in place of something evil that is entrenched in the culture. Both Christmas and All Saints Day, with the evening before called All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, fit this practice).

Stories about who Valentine really was are mixed. There are three of them:

VALENTINE #1: Helper of Christian martyrs. In this story, Valentinus was a young man who believed that killing Christians was wrong. He began to help them avoid arrest. Pretty soon, he himself was arrested for his activities. While in prison, he became a Christian himself and would not renounce his faith. Then he, too, was sentenced to die. Knowing his death was coming soon, he wrote to his friends saying, “Remember your Valentine.”

VALENTINE #2: Pastor who married people in secret. The second story says that Valentinus was a Christian pastor/priest who defied the order of Emperor Claudius who had forbidden marriage. The law stated that only single young men could serve as soldiers and Claudius was desperate for more soldiers, so he decreed that marriage was forbidden until further notice. The pool of possible soldiers was therefore increased greatly. As the story goes, Valentinus believed, as the Bible teaches, that marriage is a sacred covenant between a man, a woman and God. He secretly presided over the marriages of young couples so that they could honor God in their relationships. When this became discovered, Valentine was imprisoned and then put to death.

VALENTINE #3: Pastor who refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. As this story goes, Valentinus was a godly Christian pastor/priest who was imprisoned when he refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods of Rome. While in prison, he prayed for the daughter of his jailor, who was healed from her illness. On the day of his execution, he left her a note, which he signed, “Your Valentine.”

“Will the real St. Valentine please stand up?!” Maybe we will have to wait until the Resurrection to ask about the real story of Valentinus of Rome. At least the stories agree that he (or they) gave faithful witness to the Christian faith and died as a result. At some point, even if the story got all mixed up with other stories and practices, he became associated with expressions of love. And everyone needs a repeated reminder to express love, both in word, in action, and even in writing.

Smiley Mudd

[1] From HistoryChannel.com, “The History of Valentine’s Day.”