My February 2011 editorial for The Path of Orthodoxy:
Americans seem to take little notice of Saints. And when they do they end depicting them as cartoon characters. On St. Patrick’s Day, for instance, we’re bombarded with silly leprechauns while matchmaking cupids on St. Valentine’s day are seen flapping their wings. Perhaps this all falls in line with the mindset of many who are of a more practical opinion that the real reason for all the seasons and holidays is for no other reason than to make a profit. Subsequently, we end up obsering commercially sponsored holidays without knowing anything about the actual person whose very name they bare. Eventually the general public, dare I say, begins beliveing more in the myth than the real person.
For starters St. Valentine was not a matchmaker. He was a third century priest during the rule of Roman Emperor Claudius II. The emeperor waged many bloody and unpopular military campaigns. According to one legend, when he encountered difficulties in finding volunteers to go to war he blamed it on the fact that men did not want to leave their loves and families behind. In response to this the emperor canceled all marriages in Rome. But the good priest Valentine, not heeding the royal decree, continued marrying couples in secret. Word spread that, amidst a strict ban, there was a priest who dared defy the emperor. Eventually it even reached the emperor’s ears and he sent his men to find this Valentine and have him arrested. According to medieval lore, when St. Valentine was imprisoned he wrote to the daughter of the jailer, who had become his friend, and signed the note “from your Valentine”. During the trial the emperor demanded that Valentine renounce his faith, which he naturally refused. Thus, he was beaten by clubs and beheaded. His martyrdom, then, was not so much as a result of him secretly marrying couples as it was his refusal to obey the emperor. That is to say, he was martyred because he was obedient to Christ and His Gospel.
Yet I suppose the real question regarding St. Valentine’s Day should be – is it Orthodox? Strictly speaking the answer would be , no. In fact, in Russia Patriarch Alexei II of blessed repose helped spread the celebration of Ss. Pyotr and Fevronia on July 8 (the day of married love and happiness) to overshadow Valentine’s Day, which the Russian church sees “as purely a commercial holiday that promotes promiscuity.” Also, February 14 is the day we commemorate St. Tryphon the martyr according to the Old Calendar. Although it’s not as popular as St. Nicholas or St. George, it is the Krsna Slava of a number of Serbian families. Yet, even though many Serbs know very well of St. Tryphon Day they are also quite aware of the fact that it is the international “day of lovers”. Indeed, St. Valentine’s Day has seemingly spread worldwide, and by that I mean the exchanging of Valentine’s and not the commemoration of the Christian martyr.
If I may impart my most humble opinion, I honestly think there is little harm in buying a box of candy or a dozen roses on this day that the commercial world has clearly highjacked. But this doesn’t mean we forfeit our faith as well. After all, this holiday, regardless of how much it’s drifted from the original, traces its roots to a Christian man, a priest named Valentine, who more than anything else expressed his love for Christ. When we set out on that day to affectionately find that one who will “be my Valentine”, hopefully we will bear in mind that the only true, genuine and pure love can be found in the very same place St. Valentine himself found it – in Christ who is our Lord and Savior.