Cue the mushy music, break out the chocolates, take a wee moment to smell that garland of roses, and count those cards again, because, if you didn’t know that it’s St. Valentine’s day you’re either out of luck, or an incurable grouch.
We’ll get to the sad fate of the man after whom the day is named, a little later.
One thing you can say about St. Valentine—purveyor of love and affection, hero to cardmakers, choclatiers, intimate restaurants, the Post Office, and maternity hospitals around the middle of November—is that the various Churches in which he is revered, work the man very hard indeed. The afterlife doesn’t necessarily mean a restful retirement for holy men. Valentine is not just the patron saint of lovers you see. He doesn’t get any downtime after mid-February. In addition to his patronage of love, amour, amore, liebe, STDs and lovebites, he is also the patron saint of beekeepers. He is charged with their protection and with the sweetness of honey. Not only that but he is patron saint AGAINST epilepsy, fainting and the bubonic plague. He’s been doing quite well on the latter in recent years.
The man himself was a Christian martyr who met a sad and violent end around the year 270 AD in Rome, where his skull is still exhibited to this day. But, fear not, apparently a small vessel containing some of his blood—which has survived remarkably well after one thousand seven hundred and fifty odd years—is on display in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street in Dublin. Hopefully it’s the blood of the correct Valentine, because apparently there are around a dozen saints and martyrs of that name who feature in regional Christian church lists. The most recent one was canonised in 1988. There is even a Pope Valentine, but he only lasted in office for forty days, in 827, so, wisely perhaps, no pontiff has assumed the name since the ninth century.
Is it significant, one wonders, that, apparently, there are no churches dedicated to St. Valentine in buttoned-down England, while there are dozens in his name in amorous Italy? Which brings to mind the title of that long-running 1970s farce No Sex Please We’re British. It ran in the West End for sixteen years. One of the Italian churches named after him was situated in the 1960 Rome Olympic village, though, by all accounts, the presence of St. Valentine is not essential for lustful carry-on in Olympic villages.
The problem with Valentine and all the saccharine of the day associated with his name, is that he was a Christian martyr. There is no getting away from the fact, as you sip your first prosecco of the night and dive into the Quality Street, that poor Valentine, to whom you owe tonight’s date with your outrageously handsome or beautiful escort, came to a very bad end indeed.
As regards the poor man’s demise, there is some clubbing involved, but not of the type that you might hope to be indulging in later tonight if that romantic dinner goes well. As with most of the early saints and martyrs, the precise details of his passing are disputed. But the consensus seems to be that he fell foul of the Roman Emperor Claudius, not the I Claudius of the Robert Graves books, who was a good egg, but Claudius the Second, who was more of a hard-boiled type. Valentine, or Valentinus to give him his Roman name, was accused of marrying Christian couples, hence his designation as patron saint of lovers. But Claudius the Second was a tad unsentimental about Christian nuptials. In fact he didn’t approve of Christians of any stripe. Aiding and abetting Christianity was a capital offence in third century Rome.
Claudius ordered that Valentine should be beaten to death with clubs—not the sort of end that we would associate with such a mushily romantic figure. The good news is that the beating failed to kill him. The bad news is that he was then beheaded, which did. Spare a thought for his dreadful end as the maitre d’ escorts you to your table tonight. Actually … maybe save your reflections until tomorrow. Contemplating beatings and beheadings as you order the starter might spoil your appetite, or ruin that all-important frisson as you gaze rapturously into the eyes of your dinner date.
But as to the ultimate fate of St. Valentine, patron saint of lovers and beekeepers, was he beaten to death with clubs? No, he was decapitated, so that’s fake history. Do enjoy your evening.