The ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, an annual three-day ritual believed to ward off evil spirits and increase fertility, was held on February 13 to 15.
Lupercalia (also known as Februatio, which is where we get the name for our month of February) was popular among many of the new converts to the quick-rising Catholic Church, and as Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays notes, “Everywhere that [mainstream] Christians came into power they immediately adapted the holidays and customs of the people to their own creed” (Robert J. Myers and the editors of Hallmark Cards, 1972, pp. 50-51).
Such was their course of action with this festival of Lupercalia. While Pope Gelasius officially condemned the pagan Roman festival and banned its observance at the end of the fifth century, many of its accompanying practices quickly appeared in a newly established holiday added by him to the official church list of feast days in A.D. 496—St. Valentine’s Day.
Soon, people were no longer looking to obtain fertility by being beaten with strips of animal skin called februa. Instead, they turned their focus to St. Valentine, the patron saint of “engaged couples and anyone wishing to marry” (Celebrations, pp. 48-49), whose actual identity is even murkier than what connection he bore to romance.
What amounted to a renamed, refurbished Lupercalia then picked up steam, gradually adapting itself into the Valentine’s Day we know today, which included the added elements of Valentine cards and Cupid, the Roman god of erotic love.
Friendship and sending cards are wonderful things, and God is not opposed to romance at the right time in the right way. But does the pagan religious history of Valentine’s Day taint the modern practices? What does God have to say about observing pagan traditions, renamed or not?
“When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess…do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods… Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:29-32 Deuteronomy 12:29-32 29 When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwell in their land;
30 Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.
31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.
32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×).
Though the practices of Lupercalia have been repackaged and dressed up in the form of Valentine’s Day, these verses indicate they remain just as detestable as they have always been in our Creator’s eyes. Instead of pagan days and practices, our focus should be on the Holy Days God has given us in the Bible, which point us toward His amazing and incomparable plan for all of humanity.
For more information, please read the free Bible study guide ”Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe? “