Nobody is one hundred per cent certain who we celebrate each February. All we know is that there are three saints vying for the title of Saint Valentine: a priest from Africa who became a martyr, a priest from Rome, and a Bishop from Rome. It sounds like the set up to a joke, but unfortunately all three met much worse ends than simply walking into a bar. Of the African Valentine little is recorded. The bishop and priest have slightly similar histories. Some historians posit that this is because their histories and motivational spiritual quotes about them somehow got mixed up over the centuries. It is either that, or there were two guys called Valentine who lived very similar lives in 260 AD. Here's a little more about these two Valentines.
The Roman priest
The Roman priest named Valentine was arrested for the crime of secretly performing marriage ceremonies by the Emperor Claudius. Unusually, Claudius visited Valentine while he was locked up and they came to have regular discussions on the topic of religion and spirituality. The emperor took a liking to Valentine, that is, until the indomitable Valentine began trying to convert him to Christianity. That did not go down too well with the Emperor and so Claudius had him beaten with clubs, and then had him stoned to death. But Valentine, like a medieval Steven Segal, was hard to kill. Finally, Claudius had Valentine beheaded. So far, so romantic, right?
Another legend has it that a Bishop Valentine was imprisoned by Claudius for converting Romans to Christianity. As both Valentines are thought to have been punished for attempting to convert people to Christianity, it is very possible that someone somewhere in history got the two mixed up. Nonetheless, this legend has slightly more relevance to the romantic holiday as we know it today. When he was in prison, he is supposed to have begun an epistolary relationship with the Jailor's daughter. Each time he finished a letter he would sign it "Your Valentine." Those very letters are said to have begun the tradition of sending love letters on February the 14th and signing it anonymously with the words "Your Valentine." But how did an imprisoned Bishop's letters kick-start a romantic tradition that is still going strong hundreds of years later?
For a long time, not much was written about either saint and the February 14th feast day had little to distinguish it from the feast days of other saints. The next stage of the evolution of Valentine's Day came about due to the imagination of the English writer Geoffrey Chaucer. He wrote the poem, "A Parliament of Fowles," in 1478 AD. It was in this poem that he invented the idea that it is a tradition to send cards and celebrate romantic love on the feast day of Saint Valentine.
Since then, we have been blessed, or cursed, to have to do something romantic on this day, and its connection with Christianity has become tenuous. Saint Valentine has turned into more of a Santa Claus than a Christian martyr who tried to convert others and who performed Christian wedding ceremonies in secret. To Valentine, marriage was, as Joseph Campbell would say, "the recognition of a spiritual identity."
Next Valentine's Day you should also try to give some thought to the more spiritual aspect of your relationship and, in the spirit of at least one of the purported histories of one of the possible Valentines, why not write your significant other a love letter as well?