Saint Valentine’s Day
Saint Valentine was a priest of the early Christian faith who lived in ancient Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. At that time, 14 February was treated similar to a public holiday to honour Juno, the celebrated queen of the Roman gods and goddesses of women and marriage.
One of the customs associated with the celebration was to write the names of girls on slips of paper and then place them in containers. Boys of the same age group were then invited to pull a name from the container and the girl drawn would have to accompany him for the duration of the festival. The partnership could last up to a year. It was a method for youngsters to meet ‘legally’ as there were strict rules about them meeting otherwise. This partnership gave them the chance to develop a loving relationship, which could later turn to marriage.
Under Claudius, Rome became involved in violent and bloody campaigns which affected many young men of military age. Because of the custom involving the young men and women, Claudius took drastic steps and banned all engagements and marriages. His reasoning behind these extreme measures was that he felt that young men were reluctant to leave their wives or sweethearts and go to war.
Saint Valentine, with the help and support of another man, Saint Marius, began to perform secrete marriage ceremonies for those wishing to marry. Eventually, knowledge of Valentine’s activities was brought to the attention of Claudius. He ordered the immediate arrest of Valentine, and thus he was placed in prison. After being brought before the authorities in Rome, he was sentenced to be clubbed to death, after which he was to be decapitated. According to tradition, while he was awaiting his fate, young people would throw flowers and notes of encouragement in through his cell window.
Another story relates that the jailor’s daughter continued to visit him prior to his execution. She was blind and through his prayers, her eyesight was restored. Seemingly on the eve of his execution, he wrote a note thanking her for the friendship and loyalty; and supposedly signed it, ‘Love from your Valentine’. The following day, 14 February 270 AD, the sentence was carried out (some sources indicate the dates 269 and 273 AD). Thus Saint Valentine’s Day was born; he is the Patron Saint of Love, Young People and Happy Marriages.
Another story tells that Claudius became friendly with Valentine while in prison, until he tried to convert the emperor to Christianity; it was then he ordered the execution.
There are many traditions associated with Saint Valentine’s Day stretching back over the centuries. During the medieval period, there was a custom of young men picking a women’s name from a bowl which was similar to the Roman custom. However, by this time this practice was to determine who would be their Valentine. The young men would wear the name of the woman they had drawn on their sleeves for a week. It is believed that the saying, ‘To wear your heart on your sleeve’ owes its origins to this custom.
Superstition also played a part in centuries past; if a robin flew over a woman on Valentine’s Day, it would indicate marriage to a sailor. If she saw a sparrow overhead, it meant that she would marry a poor man, but all was not lost, as it also indicated a happy marriage. If a goldfinch made its appearance above her, she would marry a wealthy man.
There was a tradition in Wales of carving wooden spoons and decorating them with hearts, keyholes and keys. They were then used as a Valentine’s Day gift, which simply meant that this was the key to unlock their heart.
Closer to home there was a tradition of identifying the name of the person that you would marry. It was easy; all you had to do was to think of the names of five or six people you liked. Then recite the names as you twist off the stem of an apple, the person whose name is on your lips when the stem breaks is the name of the person you will marry.
To find out how many children you would have was also easy. Just pick a dandelion that has its seeds and blow them into the wind. The amount of seeds remaining on the stem is the number of children you will have.
Beat this all you Valentines out there; in July 1884, following the death of a Frenchman an interesting story regarding his love for his wife was revealed. On his wedding day some 20 years earlier, he took the original, perhaps it may be said, rather imprudent resolution to keep a yearly account on the number of kisses exchanged with his wife until death came to one of them.
He was destined to make the journey to the afterlife first. He was extremely ill and knowing that death was not far away, he entrusted a friend with the responsibly of informing the world of his kissing account.
During the first year of marriage, he kissed his wife an incredible 36,500 times, working it out at an average 100 times a day. There was a noticeable decrease the following year, with 16,000 kisses being recorded. The third year the kisses fell to an average of ten a day. After a lapse of five years, only two kisses were recorded each day. Over the last ten years of the marriage, he only kissed his wife when going on and returning from a journey.
Ireland has the proud boast of having Saint Valentine resting on its soil. In 1836, Pope Gregory XVI presented Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street in Dublin with a most unique gift, which took the form of a small gold-bound wooden casket containing the remains of Saint Valentine. They had been exhumed from the cemetery of St Hyppolytus on the Tiburtine Way in Rome. The gift was in recognition of the staunch work of Fr John Spratt, a prior who had been widely acclaimed an extremely devout man. This man was responsible for the building of the church in Whitefriar Street. He also worked tirelessly among the poverty stricken people of the Liberties in Dublin during the early nineteenth century.
Fr Spratt was a powerful speaker and gifted preacher; and while visiting Rome in 1835, his reputation as such and his kind work for the poor was brought to the attention of the Pontiff. He received a number of tributes, among them one from the Pope, the remains of Saint Valentine.
The relics, which also included a small vessel stained with the saint’s blood, were brought in solemn procession and enshrined with great ceremony in the church on 10 November 1836. The church authorities in Dublin were delighted with the gift and it was received with great honour.
However, following the death of Fr Spratt, the relics were placed in storage. There they remained until renovations were carried out in the church during the early 1960s, when a shrine was constructed to house the relics. After the shrine was completed, there was a renewed interest in the relics, particularly among young couples.
A statue of the saint was included in the shrine; the inscription reads, ‘This shrine contains the sacred body of Saint Valentinus the Martyr, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood.’ The casket is located under the altar inside an ornate iron and glass door. On 14 February, the feast-day of Saint Valentine, the relics are placed before the high altar and venerated during the masses during which a short ceremony, known as the Blessing of Rings, is performed for couples who are about to exchange wedding vows.
While the feast-day ceremony is the main day observed, young couples visit the shrine throughout the year in a tradition going back to ancient Rome almost 2,000 years ago.
Events of Note: Thanks to Fr Brian McKay (Prior), The Carmelites, Whitefriar Street, Dublin for his support and photograph.
The Old Galway Society lecture ‘The Stony River – Gaillimh and Other Placenames from the Vicinity of Galway’ by Dr Nollaig O’Muraille will take place in the Victoria Hotel, Victoria Place at 8.30 on Thursday 14 February.
Please remember in your diary a forthcoming event, A Night For Ned, on 12 April in the Clayton Hotel. More about this fantastic event closer to the time.
Photo caption: Shrine to Saint Valentine in the Carmelite Church, Whitefriar Street, Dublin.