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 now common on Valentine's Day.
Of course, this is nothing new. The custom of sending valentine cards actually became popular in the 1700s. Then in the early 1800s commercial valentines appeared, and soon there was no end to how entrepreneurs could make money from the holiday. Valentine's Day became so popular in the United States that one 1863 periodical claimed 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.
What harm can there be in the celebration of lovers in the name of St. Valentine? After all, what does it matter that some of the day's customs stem from pagan rites?
But just where did the curious customs of this day come from? What is the origin of the holiday itself? And what should the Christian perspective of this holiday be, according to the Bible?
A martyred saint?
Valentine's Day supposedly acquired its name from a Catholic saint, although exactly who he was is a matter of debate. The two most famous candidates were a priest in Rome and a bishop in central Italy, both of whom suffered martyrdom in the last half of the third century.
Robert Myers, in 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" (with the editors of Hallmark Cards, 1972, pp. 48-49).
Some have claimed that he is associated with love because he secretly performed Christian weddings during Roman persecution. Of course, all Christian ceremonies and gatherings were done in secret at the time, so this would not have been unusual for any Christian leader. Valentine's particular association with love is therefore far more likely due to other reasons.
Birds and lovers in the Middle Ages
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 in the 1300s mentioned 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, [as well as another poet writing around 1600, Michael] Drayton, and [poet and dramatist of the 1700s John] Gay are among those who mention it in this connection, and the diarist [of the 1600s] 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 Hatch, The American Book of Days, 1978, p. 178).
It is true that various birds are involved in courtship and mate selection around this time of year, but it is not specific to the date of Feb. 14.
What was specific to Feb. 13 through 15 on the Roman calendar was the pagan festival of Lupercalia.
Pre-Christian origins of Valentine's Day
The obvious fact is that the origins of Valentine's Day predate Christianity. As Myers states:
"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 and, occurring when it did, naturally had some aspects of a rebirth rite to it" (pp. 50-51).
The original festival is founded in the ancient legend of Romulus and Remus, the traditional founders of Rome. The story says the two brothers were abandoned as infants but were then discovered and nursed by a she-wolf, or lupa in Latin—the cave where this supposedly happened, at the base of Rome's Palatine Hill, becoming known as the Lupercal.
The Lupercalia festival was celebrated in honor of a number of pastoral deities. It combined the idea of cleansing before spring renewal with the promotion of sexual fertility and reproduction, a prevalent theme throughout pagan religion. Young men dressed in the skins of sacrificed goats would run from the Lupercal cave brandishing strips of goat skin as whips. Any women slapped by these were assured fertility and ease in childbirth.
"These thongs [hide strips] were called Februa [from februum, meaning "cleansing" or "purification"], the festival Februatio, and the day Dies Februetus, hence arose the name of the month February, the last of the old Roman year" (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 15, 9th edition, "Lupercalia").
Over the years many customs were added to the celebration—including the origin of drawing out valentines. "In honor of the goddess Juno, the names of young women were put into a box," Myers states. "Youths then drew the names and the boys and girls so matched would be considered partners for a year" (p. 50).
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 Gibbon, in his classic work The History of 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 on the genial [generative or reproductive] powers of the animal and vegetable world" (chap. 36).
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.
"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 [for amorous pairing mentioned earlier] 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
But how could 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, whom they called Hermes, to be the messenger of the gods, but the Romans worshiped him as the god of trade, with businesspeople celebrating his feast day to increase profits. And there were other popular deities: Mars, god of war; Castor and Pollux, gods of sea travelers; Cronos, the guardian of time; and of course Cupid, god of love, whose magic arrows caused both human beings and immortals to fall in love. The list goes on and on.
While the Romans would call generically on "the gods," each major deity still had its own cult, and worshippers 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."
Sadly, a large part of Christianity in the Roman Empire became corrupted. In attempting to retain new converts from paganism and bring in more, devotion to all the various gods was at length replaced by devotion to "saints."
Yet it should be realized that all members of the early Christian Church were regarded as saints, meaning people sanctified or set apart to God. Paul greets the church at Philippi as "all the saints in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:1). 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 congregations, by this time having accepted the pagan Greek falsehood of the immortality of the soul and having lost the biblical understanding that those dead in their graves "know nothing" (Ecclesiastes 9:5, Ecclesiastes 9:10), would then offer prayers to the dead for intercession with God.
Thus the meaning of "saint" changed from the biblical use of the word to refer to any member of the Church to referring to a deceased person declared to be a saint by the bishop of Rome or the Pope on the basis of miracles the person had supposedly performed on behalf of others after death.
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 rife with 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. And the saints took over the spheres of responsibility previously attributed to the various pagan gods. 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. And then there is the patron saint of love and romance, St. Valentine.
Some researchers have even suggested that the original Valentine was not a martyred Christian leader at all. Rather, they see in the name Valentine, meaning "worthy, strong or powerful one," a reference to a deified hero or a Roman god, perhaps even Cupid.
While eventually portrayed as a harmless baby, the original Cupid, called Eros by the Greeks, was envisioned as a strong, athletic youth armed with bow and arrow—a mighty hunter. And this image of the mighty hunter may well go way back to the traditional founder of pagan religion following Noah's Flood, "Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord" (Genesis 10:9).
The danger in a "harmless" holiday
But really, what harm can there be in the celebration of lovers in the name of St. Valentine? After all, what does it matter that some of the day's customs stem from pagan rites?
God warned ancient Israel, the people He chose to represent true religion, not to mix pagan customs with worshipping 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).
In the New Testament, Paul compares mixing paganism with Christianity to worshipping 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).
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.
Even some Christians who reject religious holidays with roots in paganism, like Christmas and Easter, see nothing wrong with holidays like Valentine's Day, New Year's Day and Halloween despite their pagan origin. The reasoning goes like this: Christmas and Easter must be rejected because they are attempts to worship God with pagan customs. The other holidays, however, while they might have once been used to worship God, are now deemed completely secular. And since what God actually forbids is using pagan customs to worship Him, we are free to practice pagan worship customs if they are not now used for worship.
Yet this ignores the fact that God told the Israelites to completely eradicate all vestiges of pagan worship from their presence, not merely from their worship of Him (see Deuteronomy 12:2-4). Moreover, our whole life is to be one of worshipping and honoring God in all we do. The things we participate in should be seen in the context of bringing glory to Him. This does not mean we can't have fun, for God wants us to enjoy life. But our fun is not to be independent of Him. All that we think, say and do should be to God's honor.
Jesus said that His followers would "worship the Father in spirit and truth" (John 4:23). The observance of Valentine's Day is just one of many traditions that must be rooted out of Christian lives if Christianity is to return to its true foundation laid by Jesus Christ.