Monday, February 14, 2011

Will the real St. Valentine please stand up?

I've been toying with the idea of writing a Valentine's Day-themed post for a few days now, and the focus has shifted several times. First, I was tempted to take the self-indulgent route (single, blue-stocking spinster just shy of 33 ponders the foibles of her timing vs. God's (infinitely wiser) plan), but that smacked too much of bitterness, which I try to avoid, so I nixed it. Then there was the tongue-in-cheek look at my lack of a love life stemming from the hopelessness of my very first crush, Errol Flynn. Yes, my father's purchase of a VCR in 1983 coupled with a renting of 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" was a momentous event for my 5-year-old self. How was I to know Errol had been dead for 30-plus years when confronted with his green-tights-clad derring-do in glorious Technicolor?

But I thought better of that, too. I finally decided in favor of a topic I started researching several years ago when I began writing a draft of a Catholic chick-lit novel (which I still think would be fun to finish, even if just for the sake of having done it (and something which several of my girlfriends who I let read the 34-odd pages of text would thank me for, since they've all berated me several times for leaving them -- and my main character -- hanging)).

Anyway (now that I've completely buried the lede, sorry), one of the plot lines revolved around my protagonist discovering various saints (did you know there is a patron saint of spelunkers, and two patrons of unattractive people?) on the Patron Saints Index, where she (almost inevitably) stumbles upon those whose patronage extends to single people.

According to the Index, there are at least 32 saints one can pray to for intercession when it comes to romance, including St. Nicholas of Myra (yep, Santa Claus!) and St. Catherine of Alexandria, patron of young women and female students -- who I once saw referenced in a silly romp of a Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward 60s comedy, set in Paris, where Joanne’s character joins a parade of single shop girls carrying flowers to a statue of St. Catherine in hopes she'll intercede and find them husbands.

But St. Andrew the Apostle, feast day November 30, stood out. I remember hearing years ago that he was one of the patrons of the unmarried, and when I looked him up for my (now stalled) work-in-progress, his biographical information included the following strange superstitions:

* An old German tradition says that single women who wish to marry should ask for Saint Andrew's help on the Eve of his feast, then sleep naked that night; they will see their future husbands in their dreams.
* Another says that young women should note the location of barking dogs on Saint Andrew's Eve: their future husbands will come from that direction.         
* On the day after Andrew's feast, young people float cups in a tub; if a boy's and a girl's cup drift together and are intercepted by a cup inscribed "priest," it indicates marriage.

Really? Sleeping naked, barking dogs and what sounds essentially like bobbing for a spouse? Very, very odd. How do these things get started?

And then, of course, there's St. Valentine. Actually, depending on the source, there are between eight and 14 saints Valentine. One has a feast on December 16, another on January 7. The St. Valentine commemorated on October 25 was from Spain and was martyred by invading Moors. St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa was a missionary to the Philippines and Vietnam, where he was beheaded in 1861. St. Valentine of Genoa, feast day May 2, was bishop of that city and died circa 307. St. Valentine of Strasbourg was bishop of both Strasbourg and of Alsace, France in the fourth century. And then there's St. Valentine of Terni, who some believe, apparently, might be one and the same person as THE St. Valentine -- St. Valentine of Rome, since both their memorials fall on February 14.

Valentine of Rome, patron of love, lovers, engaged couples and happy marriages (as well as of travelers, young people, bee keepers (oddly enough), greeting card manufacturers (surprise!) and who can be invoked against epilepsy, the plague and fainting), was apparently martyred around the year 270, and there are any number of stories about him. One of them (even referenced on "How I Met Your Mother" earlier tonight!) says he invoked the ire of the emperor performing marriages for young Roman soldiers and their brides in secret when the emperor forbade members of his army to wed  ostensibly because single men who weren't thinking about a wife and children made better fighters. Another recounts how Valentine was martyred  helping early Christians escape their Roman captors. A third tale posits Valentine fell in love, while in prison himself, with the daughter of his jailer, writing her a letter before his death signed "from your Valentine."

Of course, there are several other possibilities about why love is celebrated in the spring, many having to do with the beginning of animal mating season. It is also said that the Church replaced the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia with St. Valentine's Day.

According to, during this festival members of the Luperci, an order of pagan Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were believed to have been raised by a she-wolf. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. Young men then sliced the goat's hide into strips, dipped them in the blood and took to the streets, gently slapping both women and fields of crops with the goat hide strips. Can I just say, for the record, that I'm really glad this particular tradition is no longer practiced? I'd much rather be given a nice card, some flowers or have a lovely dinner than be smacked with a bloody strip of hide on Lupercalia Day.

Strangely enough, the Roman women really didn't mind the sanguineous salute, because they believed it would make them more fertile during the coming year. Later in the day, the legend says, all the young women in the city placed their names in a large urn so Roman bachelors could pluck a name and be matched for the year with the woman whose name he chose, with the pairing often ended in marriage. However, Pope Gelasius outlawed the "lottery system" of finding a mate and declared February 14 St. Valentine's Day around the end of the fifth century.

And as with St. Andrew, there's an interesting tradition related to St. Valentine that I'd never heard before -- pinning bay leaves to your pillow on Valentine’s Eve in order to see your future mate in your dreams that night.

Well, shoot. I have bay leaves in my spice cabinet. But I guess I missed my chance last night. I suppose I'll just have to wait until November and listen for barking dogs. ;)

St. Valentine -- all of you -- please pray for us!

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