every year in mid-February millions of people express romantic desire for each other by exchanging heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, flowers and “valentines.” Children reveal hidden infatuations by sending a card as a “secret admirer.” Retailers stock their shelves with merchandise covered in stylized hearts and Cupids preparing for the popular observance of Valentine's Day. But where and how did these curious customs originate?
Valentine's Day acquired its name from a Catholic saint, although exactly who he was is a matter of debate. The two most famous Valentines were a Roman priest and a bishop who both suffered martyrdom in the last half of the third century.
Celebrations, The Complete Book of American Holidays , records the story this way: “Everyone knows that St. Valentine's Day is that day of the year when friends and lovers express affection for one another, through cards, candy and flowers, whatever means the imagination can find. But no one is quite certain who this St. Valentine was—or, more appropriately, who these Valentines were. The early lists of church martyrs reveal at least three Valentines, and one source boosted this number to an unwieldy eight, each of whom had his feast day on February 14.
“The various Valentines eventually evolved into one. Lover's quarrels come under his jurisdiction and, naturally, he is the patron saint of engaged couples and of anyone wishing to marry” (Robert J. Myers and the Editors of Hallmark Cards, 1972, pp. 48-49).
During the Middle Ages, Valentine's Day became increasingly popular in Europe. February 14 was significant not only for its religious meaning, but because it was widely believed that birds begin to mate on this date. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) mentions the mating of birds on Valentine's Day in his poem Parliament of Foules .
“English literature, following Chaucer, contains frequent references to February 14 as sacred to lovers. Shakespeare, Drayton, and Gay are among those who mention it in this connection, and the diarist Samuel Pepys several times discusses the day and its related customs. The Paston Letters , covering the period from 1422 to 1509, contain a letter by Dame Elizabeth Brews to John Paston, with whom she hoped to arrange a match for her daughter, which runs this way:
“And cousin mine, upon Monday is St. Valentine's day and every bird chooseth himself a mate…” (Jane M. Hatch, The American Book of Days , 1978, p. 178).
For centuries St. Valentine's Day flourished as a day of romantic superstition. A common belief was that a girl would marry the first bachelor she saw or conjure her future mate's image by visiting a graveyard on St. Valentine's Eve.
The custom of sending valentine cards grew popular in the 1700s. In the early 1800s commercial valentines appeared and soon there was no end to how entrepreneurs could make money from this holiday. Valentine's Day became so popular in the United States that one 1863 periodical claimed that it was second in celebration only to Christmas.
Today, Valentine's Day is as popular as ever with children and couples. It's definitely one of the biggest moneymaking days for florists, candy makers and gift shops.
Pre-Christian Origins of Valentine's Day
But do the roots of Valentine's Day run deeper and further back into history?
In reality, the origins of Valentine's Day predate Christianity. “The most plausible theory for St. Valentine's Day traces its customs back to the Roman Lupercalia, a feast celebrated in February in honor of the pastoral god Lupercus, a Roman version of the Greek god Pan. The festival was an important one for the Romans, occurring when it did, naturally had some aspects of a rebirth rite to it” (Myers, pp. 50-51).
The original festival, celebrated on February 15, is founded in the ancient legend of the infants Romulus and Remus. The two brothers were abandoned but discovered and nursed by a wolf, or lupus in Latin. The two boys are credited as the founders of Rome.
Lupercalia was celebrated in honor of a number of pastoral deities, and ceremonies included the sacrifice of goats and a dog. Young men dressed in the sacrificial animal skins would run from a cave, said to be where Romulus and Remus were cared for by the wolf, brandishing strips of goat skins. Any women struck by these thongs were assured fertility. “These thongs were called Februa , the festival Februatio , and the day Dies Februetus , hence arose the name of the month February, the last of the old Roman year” ( Encyclopedia Britannica , Vol. XV, ninth edition, 1907, article “Lupercalia”).
Over the years many customs were added to the celebration. One custom was for the names of girls to be placed in a box to be drawn by boys. The two were then considered a pair for the coming year.
Lupercalia and Christianity
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, it was common for pagan converts to retain their earlier religious customs and practices. Edward Gibbons, in his classic work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , states: “After the conversion of the Imperial city, the Christians still continued, in the month of February, the annual celebration of the Lupercalia; to which they ascribed a secret and mysterious influence of the genial powers of the animal and vegetable world” (Vol. II, The Modern Library, p. 327).
Pope Gelasius is said to have eradicated Lupercalia from Christian observance in the last decade of the fifth century. But in reality, the intermingling of paganism and Christianity had become inseparable in much of the Western world. Saturnalia and Mithraism were incorporated into the church through claiming a December birth date for Jesus Christ. Various spring fertility rites merged to form the basis of Easter celebrations. Lupercalia evolved into the observance of St. Valentine's Day.
Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays , comments: “Everywhere that Christians came into power they immediately adapted the holidays and customs of the people to their own creed. Now it was a simple matter to call the day that this drawing took place St. Valentine's Day To Christianize the heathen practice of picking lots for sweethearts, all that was needed was to replace the names of the girls with names of saints and to have the young people emulate the particular virtues of whatever saint they drew. Incidentally, this custom is not dead today and is still observed in some religious orders.
“It was always more fun, of course, to pick a girl's rather than a saint's name. Consequently, by at least the fourteenth century the custom had reverted to its original form” (pp. 50-51).
Roman Gods and Christian Saints
Why would a day honoring pagan gods become associated with Christian saints?
The ancient Romans worshiped gods and goddesses involved with every aspect of life. Jupiter, the chief of the gods, was the god of rain and storms, while his wife, Juno, was the goddess of womanhood. Minerva was the goddess of handicrafts and wisdom; Venus, of sexual love and birth; Vesta, of the hearth and sacred fires; Ceres, of farming and harvests.
The Greeks considered Mercury to be the messenger of the gods, but the Romans worshiped him as the god of trade and businesspeople celebrated his feast day to increase profits. Others included Mars, god of war; Castor and Pollux, gods of sea travelers; Cronos, the guardian of time; and Cupid, god of love, whose magic arrows caused both humans and immortals to fall in love. The list goes on and on.
Romans would generically call on “the gods,” but each deity had its own cult and worshipers would pray and conduct religious ceremonies to a specific god or goddess to implore help. Christianity, with its emphasis on one God, was viewed by many Romans as a strange superstition or even a kind of atheism that denied the “gods.”
Members of the early Christian Church considered themselves “saints,” meaning holy or separated to God. Paul greets the church at Philippi as “all the saints in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1 Philippians 1:1Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
American King James Version×). However, it wasn't long before “saints” in the Roman tradition began to take on the meaning of a special class of martyrs or performers of heroic virtue.
In the second and third centuries it became common for local congregations to honor the death of a martyr by celebrating the anniversary of his or her demise. The local cult would then offer prayers to the dead for intercession with God. A “saint” could eventually receive universal recognition by declaration of the bishop of Rome.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains: “As was taught by St. Augustine… Catholics, while giving to God alone adoration strictly so-called, honor the saints because of the Divine supernatural gifts which have earned them eternal life, and through which they reign with God in the heavenly fatherland as His chosen friends and faithful servants.
“In other words, Catholics honor God in His saints as the loving distributor of supernatural gifts. The worship of latria … or strict adoration is given to God alone; the worship, or dulia … or honor and humble reverence, is paid the saints; the worship of hyperdulia … on account of her greater excellence, to the Blessed Virgin Mary” (Vol. II, article “Saints,” 1907, Online Edition, 1999, Kevin Knight).
The evolution from the early church's recognition of all members being “saints” to the veneration and worship of the dead is rooted in the early mixture of paganism with Christianity. The populace throughout the Roman Empire was not only accustomed to the worship of the Greek and Roman pantheon, but to cultic worship of local deities. It was an easy step for Christian congregations whose roots were in paganism to replace the customs of local cults with the worship of dead martyrs.
Over the centuries the Catholic church canonized saints for any number of events, problems, illnesses and occupations, each celebrated with his or her own feast day. St. Stephen is the patron saint of stonemasons; doctors are to pray to St. Luke; fishermen to St. Andrew and carpenters to St. Joseph. There are patron saints for farmers, hunters, shoemakers and even comedians. The primary saint in Catholic theology is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Danger in a “Harmless” Holiday
What harm can there be in the celebration of lovers in the name of St. Valentine? Besides, what does it matter that some of the day's customs stem back to pagan rites?
Nowhere does the Bible approve of praying to dead saints. In fact, Jesus declared that no one except Him has ascended into heaven (John 3:13 John 3:13And no man has ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
American King James Version×). The saints wait in their graves for the resurrection to occur at the return of Jesus Christ. Venerating dead saints propagates an ancient heathen custom that has no basis in reality.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about the resurrection: “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16 13 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
American King James Version×).
One of the roles Jesus Christ fulfills as our resurrected High Priest is Intercessor—one who pleads on behalf of another. The Bible declares, “Therefore He [Jesus] is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25 Hebrews 7:25Why he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come to God by him, seeing he ever lives to make intercession for them.
American King James Version×).
The Bible encourages Christians to pray for each other, but heavenly intercession is reserved for Jesus Christ. At Jesus' death the veil in the temple, a heavy curtain that separated the “holy of holies,” representing God's throne, from the rest of the temple, was supernaturally torn from top to bottom. This action revealed a new access to God made available by the sacrifice of Jesus as the Messiah. A Christian's relationship to God is with a personal and intimate Father. The need for another heavenly intercessor would denigrate this primary role of Christ.
Does it Matter to God?
God warned ancient Israel, the people He chose to represent true religion, not to mix pagan customs with worshiping Him as the one true God. “When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you 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” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31 Deuteronomy 12:29-31 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.
American King James Version×).
In the New Testament, Paul compares mixing paganism with Christianity to worshiping demons: “What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cups of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:19-21 1 Corinthians 10:19-21 19 What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?
20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that you should have fellowship with devils.
21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: you cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.
American King James Version×).
Holidays like St. Valentine's Day continually secularize into icons of Western culture, creating a caricature of religion. Most people couldn't care less if its origins are in the Roman Lupercalia or early church doctrines that that had nothing to do with the Bible. It's this very apathy about how to worship God, and the corresponding moral decay, that is the result of mixing Christianity with paganism.
Jesus said that His followers would “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23 John 4:23But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him.
American King James Version×). Observance of this holiday is just one of many traditions that must be questioned if Christianity is to return to its foundation laid by Jesus Christ.
Does it matter which days we keep? Does God care one way or another which days and customs we celebrate or use to honor Him? Why do so many of today's holidays—including many religious observances—have strange and unusual customs found nowhere in the Bible?
Many people are shocked to discover the true origins of today's most popular holidays. They're also surprised to find that the Holy Days God commands in the Bible—the same days kept by Jesus Christ and the apostles—are almost universally ignored.
Does it matter to God? Check out the booklet Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Keep? You can download it or request a free copy to be mailed to you.