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Did you know that a Tunisian pope created Valentine’s Day?

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Beyond the flood of everything red and heart-shaped, very little about Valentine’s Day can be deemed factual and it is quite hard to distinguish between the historical and the mythical.

The day of love is said to have acquired its name from that of a saint, yet there is no consensus over which one. The Catholic Church, in fact, recognizes several saints with the name Valentine or Valentinus, each said to have some link or another to the now internationally renowned holiday.

In the third century AD, Roman emperor Claudius II is said to have decided that young men should not be allowed to marry so they can be committed to joining the army. A priest named Valentine saw this decision as unfair and decided to marry young couples in secret and was put to death after the emperor got to know he disobeyed his orders.

Another Valentine is said to have protected Christians from persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire and in another story converted people to Christianity and was executed for doing so. One of the two Valentines presumably fell in love with the daughter of his jailer and before his death sent her a note signed “From you Valentine,” hence the phrase used till the present moment in greeting cards and which is sometimes twisted into “Be my Valentine” and the like.

Tunisian pope

The pope who declared February 14 as Valentine’s Day was Pope Gelasius I, the third and last Bishop of Rome of berber origin.

He came from the Roman province of Africa which is now known as modern-day Tunisia and included parts of Algeria, Mauritania and Libya.

Pope Gelasius I also hailed from the tribe of Jlass, one of the biggest Amazigh tribes in Tunisia.

He is believed to have recast the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia, which involved the sacrifice of a goat whose skin would be dipped into sacrificial blood then used to slap the bodies of women so they can become fertile for the coming year.

Women touched by the goat’s hide wrote their names on little slips and put them in a large urn and each of the city’s bachelors picked the name of the woman that was to become his companion for the following year. That day was considered the beginning of the mating season. According to the legend, Lupercalia was officially outlawed right before the declaration of February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day.

Legend has it that the story of St. Valentine was created by the Catholic Church as part of its attempt at eliminating pagan festivals.

Another little-known historical fact is that February 14 had for a long time been day on which a St. Valentine, most likely one of the previously mentioned two, was honored since it was arguably the day on which he was martyred. However, in 1969, the Roman Catholic Church removed the name of St. Valentine from the liturgical calendar because very little is known about his life and the circumstances of his martyrdom.

The mystery shrouding St. Valentine is further manifested in the fact that saint’s alleged relics are to found in different parts of the world including Italy, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Malta, among others.

Regardless of whether or not he existed and what he actually did to acquire sainthood, St. Valentine became the patron of love, whether between man and woman or among human beings in general. It was only in the Middle Ages, particularly by 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, that St. Valentine became almost solely associated with romantic love.

Arab and Muslim world

Like Lupercaia in Christian culture, Valentine’s Day is quite unpopular in several parts of the Muslim world where it is seen as a violation of Islamic traditions and a form of Westernization. Pakistan is the latest country to ban Valentine’s Day celebrations under the pretext of promoting indecency.

In Iran, Valentine’s Day is seen as an infiltration of the “decadent” Western culture and shops and citizens alike are given annual warnings of engaging in activities pertaining to that day and threatened with fines and/or prison sentences. In Saudi Arabia, buying gifts and exchanging flowers on Valentine’s Day are faced with harsh criticism by religious authorities as is also the case in Indonesia and Malaysia.

While Valentine’s Day has been gaining remarkable popularity in large parts of the Arab world in the last two decades, it is still frowned upon by large segments of the population if not for religious then for cultural considerations.

Americans have undoubtedly played the biggest role in turning Valentine’s Day from a day of love to one of consumerism and mass-production. This started as early as the 1840s when a Massachusetts-based woman named Esther Howland started a project of selling Valentine’s Day cards, hence The Greeting Card Association estimates the number of Valentine’s Day greetings card sent each year across the world at one billion.

Valentine’s Day, thus, becomes the world’s second biggest card-sending holiday after Christmas, which witnesses the sending of approximately 2.6 billion cards. One interesting fact remains: 85% of Valentine’s Day cards are purchased by women.