The tradition of St. Valentine

Who was St. Valentine? And why do we send cards on his day?

Yme Woensdregt


Roses are red,

Violets are blue;

Will you love me?

Coz I sure love you.


I still remember getting that Valentine card when I was so very young and still in school. Alas, this card came from a girl I had never noticed before. Sadly, it wasn’t from the girl I hoped would give me one. Ah … such is unrequited love.

Where does the custom of sending cards and gifts come from? Who was St. Valentine? And why do we send cards on his day?

We’re not really sure who the good saint is. The best guess is that Valentinus was a priest in 3rd century Rome. The emperor Claudius II (‘the Cruel’) decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families. As a consequence, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine defied the emperor, and continued to perform marriages in secret. The emperor discovered his actions, and had him put to death on February 14, sometime around the year 270.

According to one legend, Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself, to a young girl (possibly the jailor’s daughter) who would visit him in prison. Before his death, he wrote her a letter, which he signed, “From your Valentine”.

Another legend is that at the same time as Valentine lived, the Romans celebrated a festival called Lupercalia. One of the customs of this festival was that the names of young women would be written on slips of paper, and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a slip, and the girl whose name was chosen would be his sweetheart for the duration of the festival. Valentine’s name was gradually associated with such actions.

While the reality of St. Valentine is lost in the mists of history, he became one of the most popular saints in medieval Europe. He became naturally associated with the customs of “courtly love” which were practiced by the nobility and knights in the middle ages. Courtly love was a practice of expressing love nobly and chivalrously, in which the knight serves his courtly lady.

Some think that the customs associated with Valentine’s Day originated in medieval England and France. It was supposed that birds began to pair in the middle of the second month of the year. In Chaucer’s “Parliament of Foules” we read, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / when every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” So the day became associated with lovers, and a proper time to send love letters and love tokens.

The practice grew, and became especially popular about 400 years later, so that by the mid–eighteenth century, it was very common for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes.

Today, the Greeting Card Association estimates that a billion Valentine cards are sent each year — making this day the second largest card–sending holiday of the year.

I don’t have any advice as to how to treat your sweetheart today. But I remind you that in its deepest sense, love is much more than an emotion or a feeling. Hollywood loves to emphasize this aspect, because it usually makes for a great movie.

The deeper sense, however, is that love is a series of actions, in which we seek the best for the beloved, in which we treat one another with gentleness and compassion. In a contemporary translation of Paul’s famous hymn to love, “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.”

In that sense, truly, “love never dies.”

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook