Valentine’s Day is a popular and dreaded holiday. For those in love it is a time of romance and gifts, while singles typically dub it ‘Lonely Hearts Day’.
Valentine’s Day, like other ancient holidays such as Christmas and Halloween, holds a unique mixture of Christian and pagan practices. The name actually comes from Saint Valentine, a Christian martyr in the days of the Roman Empire.
Catholic tradition holds that there are three men named Valentine who were each martyred. It is unknown which of donated the name to the holiday. Maybe all of them did in part.
The Saint Valentine was a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. The story goes that Claudius, realizing that single men made better soldiers than those who were concerned about wife and family, outlawed marriage for single young men. Valentine performed marriages in defiance of the ban and as a result was executed.
Other stories say he (or they) were executed for helping early Christians escape the Roman prisons where they were often beaten and killed. This may be the end of the third Saint Valentine, of whom little is known save that he died in Africa.
The final legend, which seems to be the one used in conjunction with the holiday, says that Valentine was imprisoned for his Christian beliefs and while there feel in love with a young woman – who is hinted to be the jailer’s daughter. Prior to his execution he wrote her a love-letter and signed it, “From Your Valentine.” He is believed to have been executed on February 14, 270 A.D.
With the emphasis on his sympathy and courage Valentine became one of the most popular saints in medieval ages, which is when the idea of Saint Valentine’s Day as a day of love really came into popularity.
The pagan ties to Valentine’s Day stem from the belief that early priests attempted to ‘Christianize’ the Roman Lupercalia festival. The Lupercalia was a festival of spring and cleansing, and was dedicated to the god of agriculture Faunus as well as the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. There was also a heavy emphasis on fertility.
The priests would sacrifice a goat and a dog, cut their skins into strips and then run through the streets whipping women. The women would rush to be whipped since they believed it would bring them increased fertility for that year. Later, the single young women would put their names in an urn and the single young men would draw the names out. They would be paired accordingly for that year, with such matches often ending in marriage.
The Lupercalia was typically held on February 15. In order to supersede the pagan ritual yet not have it confused with the new one, Pope Gelasius I decreed Saint Valentine’s Day to be held one day earlier – February 14.
Valentine’s Day as a day of love and romance didn’t come into vogue until the 14th century. It was then that Chaucer, in 1381, wrote a poem claiming that was when birds chose their mate for the year. Chaucer was quite famous during his own time and the idea of a day of love took off. Valentine greetings were often used, although valentine cards did not come into being until around the 18th century. The trend waited until the 19th century to take up residence in America.
One Roman deity continues to live through this Christianized holiday: Cupid, son of Aphrodite/Venus the goddess of love. The bare-cheeked boy with the bow and arrows is a hold-over from Roman times when he was the God of Lust and Infatuation. He seems right at home in a holiday dedicated to romance.Legends of Saint Valentine
History of the Day of Love
More on Valentine’s Day