Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romantic love, usually accompanied by an exchange of cards, flowers and candy. On several occasions as I was doing my Valentine’s shopping I found myself in a checkout line with several men each buying flowers or candy for his wife or girl friend. I think that this must be one of the biggest days of the year for sellers of flowers. An estimated 1 billion cards are sent each year, compared to 2.6 billion at Christmas.
Who was St. Valentine?
Why would I write about Valentine’s Day in a series on Christian holidays? The older name for “Valentine’s Day” is “Saint Valentine’s Day.” Who was Saint Valentine and what does he have to do with the day we celebrate in his name? Was this originally a Christian holiday?
There were three martyrs named Valentine honored by the ancient church, all of whom are supposed to have died on Feb. 14. It is seem likely that the three were confused and assigned to the same date. The most well known of the three was Valentine of Rome, who was martyred in AD 269. When pope Pope Gelasius I established Valentine’s Day in 496, he included Valentine among those “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” So even at that time not much was know about him. Most of the stories about his life are of a relatively late date, and according to the Catholic Encyclopedia are “of no historical value.”
The most common legend is that Emperor Claudius II had forbidden the young men of Rome to marry because he thought that single men made better soldiers, and he needed a lot of soldiers. Valentine defied this order by performing secret weddings for young people who wanted to marry, and eventually was caught. He was executed when he refused to renounce his faith.
According to one legend, St. Valentine sent the first “Valentine” himself. He is said to have become friends with the daughter of his jailor, and some say that he had healed her of blindness. Before his death he is said to have written her a letter, and signed it “From your Valentine.”
The Roman Connection
Another strand of the history of this day is the Roman festival of Lupercalia. This was a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god Faunus, equivalent to the Greek god Pan, which was celebrated on Feb. 13-15. According to legend, all the single women in a village would put their names on slips of paper into an urn, and the single men would each draw out a name. The couple was then paired for a year. When Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 Valentine’s Day around 496 the Roman “lottery” system for dating was banned as unchristian.
Have you ever wondered where Cupid came from? He was the son of Venus and Mercury (Aphrodite and Hermes) and was the Roman god of erotic love and and beauty. It seems that Roman culture has had a large influence on this day.
What can we Learn?
The legends about St. Valentine do not appear before the Middle Ages, so they do not provide any reliable historical information. We do know that there was a martyr named Valentine, but we don’t really know anything about his life. On the other hand, the Roman connection seems to have influenced this holiday a great deal.
Putting all of this together, it seems that the early church established a Christian alternative to a pagan festival in Rome. Their goal was to steer people away from the sensual and erotic elements of the Roman feast and focus instead on a man who had given up his life for his faith. But it seems that they were only partially successful, and the unwanted elements continued to creep back in. The modern holiday takes much from pagan sources, and only its name from a Christian origin.
For further reading
- Valentine’s Day on history.com
- Wikipedia article on Valentine’s Day
- The history of Valentine’s Day (doesn’t mention the Roman connection)