History Lesson: Valentine’s Day

St. Valentine was a good-looking, shaggy-haired priest of unknown Christian denomination living in Rome during the late 200s, and was, in fact, one of the first teen idols. The adoration of thirteen-year-old girls notwithstanding, the 200s were a particularly bad century to be anything other than pagan in Italy and St. Valentine regularly had to fight off people who were angry he believed something other than they did. The battles were generally short, but breathtaking, and did nothing to limit St. Valentine’s sex appeal.

St. Valentine made it his mission to protect other Christians from Roman persecution and smuggle them out of the country, armed with nothing but a handgun and two decades of martial arts training. Along the way, he regularly performed Christian sacraments for his fellow persecutees, up to and including marriage, because he was a sucker for true love. He also delivered the ensuing babies. He was just that kind of guy.

Roman Emperor Claudius the Vicious was not a fan of St. Valentine. Upon hearing of the priest’s flagrant non-pagan ways, Claudius sent a team of Roman mercenaries after Valentine to violently ask him to stop being Christian. St. Valentine broke all of their faces with his feet. This upset Claudius greatly, so he called his cousin Vinny who then made a few calls of his own to some guys he knew. This is how the renowned and feared archer Cupid was hired to “talk” some sense into St. Valentine.

Cupid, Roman God of Love

After a prolonged, bloody confrontation that included the discovery of the hand grenade and left most of Rome in flames, St. Valentine was dragged through the blood-stained snow by the love god and locked in the highest security prison in the city. There the priest sat, awaiting a visit from Claudius and then execution, when he met Julia, the blind daughter of the jailer. Praying to his buddy Jesus, St. Valentine was able to restore Julia’s eyesight and – between being literally the first thing she saw and the dozens of Cupid’s arrows sticking out of the priest’s back – they immediately fell in love. Hand-in-hand, St. Valentine and Julia booked it out of Rome and away from Claudius the Vicious and his empire to live happily ever after.

St. Valentine and Julia, date unknown

The tabloids ate it up and, for centuries, this was the prevailing notion behind St. Valentine’s Day: love against all odds. On February 14th of every year – the day of the escape – lovers would stare deeply into one another’s eyes, exchange handwritten notes and freshly-plucked flowers, and perform miracles like curing lepers. Anyone without a significant other would simply meet in the town square and pick one at random, or throw themselves in a volcano, because, let’s face it, the past is pretty gruesome.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that St. Valentine’s Day became the commercial monstrosity that we know and, if we’re a man in a sitcom, forget today – with pre-packaged cards, pounds upon pounds of chocolate hearts, and an increased emphasis on material goods and sexy underwear over googly eyes and actual sentiment – presumably because the Industrial Revolution had left everyone maimed and cynical. Alternate theories suggest that it wasn’t the factory accidents that bummed everyone out, but simply that everyone knew they were about to murder their brothers in the Civil War and thinking about actual love made them sad.

Either way, that was the status quo for the holiday for about eighty years. Then events conspired to show what this world can really do and things got grim.

On the anniversary of their escape, in the late 1920s, St. Valentine and Julia made the mistake of going to Chicago, for pizza. While this alone normally wouldn’t have ended in anything other than disappointment and some slight indigestion, February 14, 1929, was not a normal day.

The deposed Roman god Cupid – after several lifetimes of hard drinking, a number of evictions, and at least two accusations of sexual assault – had only that morning started working for notorious mobster and uncle to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man Al Capone, in the Italian restaurant Capone used to launder money and make and eat calzones. Contrary to popular opinion, Capone was a soft-spoken, compassionate man, always willing to give a down-on-his-luck mercenary archer a second or, as was the case, fifteenth chance.

The gangster was showing Cupid the proper way to make a pizza, tossing a circle of floured dough into the air, when in walked St. Valentine and Julia. The ancient foes recognized one another instantly. Time seemed to slow to refrigerated molasses. Cupid grabbed his bow from beneath the counter and drew an arrow from the quiver on his back. St. Valentine turned and shielded Julia with his body, simultaneously pulling a revolver and aiming it toward the counter. Capone grabbed a Tommy gun from atop the ovens. A leprechaun in a corner booth pulled a knife from his boot. By the time the flour settled and the dough fell wetly back against the counter, everyone in the restaurant was dead.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

When the police showed up that evening, Julia’s body was found with an arrow puncturing her heart. The newspaper photographer who took the picture released it under a Creative Commons license, whereupon a corporation who didn’t understand what that meant added the image to their stock photo gallery and a million children’s Valentines were born. Thus started the Great Depression.

Seriously, greeting card companies, why?

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre proved to be too much for the American public; prohibition was promptly repealed so everyone could drink away the memory of this tragic event. To this day, we don’t talk about it much and most people are content to spend the holiday downing a bottle of wine and getting hammered with the one they love.

As a fun side note, St. Valentine’s skull was later put on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome, because no one holds a grudge quite like an Italian.

The skull of St. Valentine

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.