London Times
St Valentine

How was it for you petal?


February 14 2000

He is the most popular saint in the calendar, the patron of florists, sweetshops and greeting-cardmakers. But his popularity rests on his connection with the subject of supreme interest to man - and woman. If you have not yet realised that this is St Valentine's Day, you must be a Stylites hermit squatting on a column. And today's columns of coded newspaper ads signed by absurd, amorous pseudonyms should alert you that there is still time for a dash for flowers.

His origins are lost in the incense of hagiolatry. There were several martyred Saints Valentine in the early Church. But the best bet for our man is a Roman priest and physician who rescued persecuted Christians. He was converted, and is supposed to have restored the sight of his jailer's blind daughter. Nevertheless he was clubbed to death (c. 270) during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Claudius II Gothicus.

The association of St Valentine with a choice of lover is accident. His feast is possibly a ripple from the Roman festival of Lupercalia on this day, in honour of Romulus and Remus who were allegedly suckled by a wolf (lupus). The festival was for Lupercus, the Lycaean Pan, so called because he protected the flocks from wolves. He became the saint of lovers from a calendarial connection with the mating season of birds. Chaucer referred to Valentine. Shakespeare (Dream) knew his cult. "Good morrow, friends! St Valentine is past:/ Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?" Men call him a commercialised rip-off. Women still approve. Off to the florists.