Valentine's Day: Religious Origins and Background

Pagan Origins of Valentine's Day

At first, the connection between Valentine’s Day and religion might seem obvious — isn’t the day named after a Christian saint? When we consider the matter more closely, we find that there isn’t a strong relationship between Christian saints and romance. To gain a better understanding of the religious background of Valentine’s Day, we have to dig deeper.

Origins of St. Valentine's Day

There is a lot of debate and disagreement among scholars about the origins of Valentine’s Day.

We’ll probably never be able to disentangle all of the cultural and religious threads in order to reconstruct a complete and coherent story. The origins of Valentine’s Day lie too far in the past to be sure about everything. Despite this, there are a number of speculations we can make which are reasonably sound.

For one thing, we know that the Romans celebrated a holiday on February 14th to honor Juno Fructifier, Queen of the Roman gods and goddesses and that on February 15th they celebrated the Feast of Lupercalia in honor of Lupercus, the Roman god who watched over shepherds and their flocks. Neither of these appeared to have much to do with love or romance, but there were a number of customs focused on fertility which were associated with one feast or the other. Although attributions vary depending on the source, they are consistent in their description of the rituals.

Fertility Customs

In one, men would go to a grotto dedicated to Lupercal, the wolf god, which was located at the foot of Palatine Hill.

It was here the Romans believed that the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. It was also here that the men would sacrifice a goat, don its skin, and then proceed to run around, hitting women with small whips. These actions were taken in imitation of the god Pan and supposedly a women struck in this way would be guaranteed fertility during the next year.

In another ritual, women would submit their names to a common box and men would each draw one out. These two would be a couple for the duration of the festival (and at times for the entire following year). Both rituals were designed to promote not only fertility but also life generally.

Our modern festival isn’t called St. Lupercus’ Day, it’s called St. Valentine’s Day after a Christian saint — so where does Christianity come into play? That’s more difficult for historians to decipher. There was more than one person with the name Valentinus who existed during the early years of the church, two or three of whom were martyred.

Who was St. Valentinus?

According to one story, Roman emperor Claudius II imposed a ban on marriages because too many young men were dodging the draft by getting married (only single men had to enter the army). A Christian priest named Valentinus ignored the ban and performed secret marriages. He was caught, of course, which meant that he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, young lovers visited him with notes about how much better love is than war — the first “valentines.”

As you might have already guessed, the execution occurred in 269 CE on February 14th, the Roman day dedicated to celebrating love and fertility.

After a couple of centuries (in 469, to be precise), Emperor Gelasius declared it a holy day in honor of Valentinus instead of the pagan god Lupercus. This allowed Christianity to take over some of the celebrations of love and fertility which had previously occurred in the context of paganism.

Another Valentinus was a priest jailed for helping Christians. During his stay he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her notes signed “from your Valentine.” He was eventually beheaded and buried on the Via Flaminia. Reportedly Pope Julius I built a basilica over his grave. A third and final Valentinius was the bishop of Terni and he was also martyred, with his relics being taken back to Terni.

The pagan celebrations were reworked to fit the martyr theme — after all, early and medieval Christianity did not approve of rituals that encouraged sexuality.

Instead of pulling girls’ names from boxes, it is believed that both boys and girls chose the names of martyred saints from a box. It wasn’t until the 14th century that customs returned to celebrations of love and life rather than faith and death.

Valentine's Day Evolves 

It was around this time — the Renaissance — that people began to break free of some of the bonds imposed upon them by the Church and move towards a humanistic view of nature, society, and the individual. As a part of this change there was also a move towards more sensual art and literature. There was no shortage of poets and authors who connected the dawning of Spring with love, sexuality, and procreation. A return to more pagan-like celebrations of February 14th is not surprising.

As with so many other holidays that have pagan roots, divination came to play an important role in the development of modern Valentine’s Day. People looked to all sorts of things, primarily in nature, in order to find some sign of who might become their mate for life — their One True Love. There were also, of course, all sorts of things which came to be used to induce love or lust. They existed before, naturally, but as love and sexuality came once again to be more closely associated with February 14th, these foods and drinks came to be associated with it as well.

Modern Valentine's Day

Today, capitalist commercialism is one of the biggest aspects of Valentine’s Day. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on chocolate, candies, flowers, dinners, hotel rooms, jewelry, and all sorts of other gifts and whatnot used to celebrate February 14th. There is a lot of money to be made from people’s desire to commemorate the date, and even more to be made in convincing people to employ any number of new means to celebrate. Only Christmas and Halloween come close in the way that modern commercialism has transformed and adopted an ancient pagan celebration.