Isn’t Valentine’s Day a Christian day, named after a Christian saint? When we consider the matter more closely, we don’t find a strong relationship between Christian saints and romance. There is a lot of debate and disagreement among scholars about the origins of Valentine’s Day. We’ll never be able to disentangle all of the cultural and religious threads in order to reconstruct a complete and coherent story, but the pagan connections to the date are much stronger than the Christian ones.
The Romans celebrated a holiday on February 14th to honor Juno Fructifier, Queen of the Roman gods and goddesses as well as goddess of marriage. In one ritual, women would submit their names to a common box and men would each draw one out. These two would be a couple for the duration of the festival (and at times for the entire following year). Both rituals were designed to promote not only fertility, but also life generally.
On February 15, Romans celebrated Luperaclia, honoring Faunus, god of fertility. Men would go to a grotto dedicated to Lupercal, the wolf god, located at the foot of Palatine Hill and where Romans believed that the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. The men would sacrifice a goat, don its skin, and run around, hitting women with small whips, an act which was supposed to ensure fertility.
According to one story, Roman emperor Claudius II imposed a ban on marriages because too many young men were dodging the draft by getting married (only single men had to enter the army). A Christian priest named Valentinus was caught performing secret marriages and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, young lovers visited him with notes about how much better love is than war — the first “valentines.” The execution occurred in 269 CE on February 14th.
Another Valentinus was a priest jailed for helping Christians. During his stay he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her notes signed “from your Valentine.” He was eventually beheaded and buried on the Via Flaminia. Reportedly Pope Julius I built a basilica over his grave. A third and final Valentinius was the bishop of Terni and he was also martyred, with his relics being taken back to Terni.
In 469, emperor Gelasius declared February 14th a holy day in honor of Valentinus instead of the pagan god Lupercus. This allowed Christianity to take over some of the celebrations of love and fertility which had perviously occurred in the context of paganism. Pagan celebrations were reworked to fit the martyr theme — Christianity did not approve of rituals that encouraged sexuality. Instead of pulling girls’ names from boxes, both boys and girls chose the names of martyred saints from a box.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance of 14th century that customs returned to celebrations of love and life rather than faith and death. People began to break free of some of the bonds imposed upon them by the Church and move towards a humanistic view of nature, society, and the individual. Moving towards more sensual art and literature, there was no shortage of poets and authors connecting the dawning of Spring with love, sexuality, and procreation.
As with so many other holidays that have pagan roots, divination came to play an important role in the development of modern Valentine’s Day. People looked to all sorts of things, primarily in nature, in order to find some sign about who might become their mate for life — their One True Love. There were also, of course, things which came to be used to induce love or lust.
Today, capitalist commercialism is the biggest aspect of Valentine’s Day. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on chocolate, candies, flowers, dinners, hotel rooms, jewelry, and other gifts used to celebrate February 14th. There’s a lot of money to be made from people’s desire to commemorate the day. Only Christmas and Halloween come close in the way that modern commercialism has transformed and adopted an ancient pagan celebration.
Valentine’s Day is no longer part of the official liturgical calendar of any Christian church; it was dropped from the Catholic calendar in 1969. It’s not a feast, a celebration, or a memorial of any martyrs. A return to more pagan-like celebrations of February 14th is not surprising — and neither is the overall commercialization of the day. Millions of people all over the world celebrate Valentine’s Day in one fashion or another, but it’s unlikely that even one of them celebrates it in an even remotely religious manner.
This has resulted in some backlash among reiligious leaders in some societies. Some of the negative reactions are due to the pagan and commercialized elements, but some must be attributed to the long-term Christian character of the day. In India, Hindu nationalists threatened anyone caught observing any Christian holidays, including Valentine’s Day. Some young lovers ccaught in public together on Valentine’s Day were even assaulted. Government officials in Saudi Arabia prohibited Muslims from doing anything at all associated with Valentine’s Day.
A few Christians seem to be interested in restoring some semblance of religion to Valentine’s Day, though not in any traditional sense. They don’t want to use it as a means for memorializing saints, but as a means of evangelization. In Kansas, for example, Christians sent roses to high school girls that were accompanied by Bible verses. It’s not clear whether they were trying to reclaim a lost Christian holiday or merely trying to appropriate a secular, commercial holiday for their own purposes.
The truth, though, is that American culture has so taken over Valentine’s Day that no amount of Bible verses will be able to change things. Commercial interests make so much money from Valentine’s Day that they aren’t going to accept any changes that won’t lead to even more profits. Christians helped make Valentine’s Day a cultural holiday, and now it’s entirely out of their hands.