On February 14th of every year, couples celebrate their love and devotion to each others’ in what has come to be known as Valentine’s Day. But what are the roots of this special day? Saint Valentine’s Day as it has been known throughout history was actually named after one or more of Christian martyrs named Valentine. Pope Gelasius I established February 14 as Saint Valentine’s day in AD 496.
Though there is some debate as to which saint the day is named after, it’s likeliest that Valentine’s day was named after Saint Valentine of Rome who was martyred about AD 269 by the orders of Emperor Claudius II. So why a celebration of love for such a gruesome event? The Emperor had decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families so he outlawed marriage for young men. Saint Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. But after he was exposed he the Claudius II ordered him beaten by clubs and beheaded – not exactly the romance we generally attribute to the celebration, but Valentine was a romantic in defying an emperor for the sake of romantic love.
As with other ancient celebrations and holidays, early Church leaders chose to establish them as rival celebrations to the Roman pagan rituals. As is also the case with Saint Valentine’s Day. Pope Gelasius I created a rival celebration to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. Lupercalia was an offensive feast celebration of “love” in honour of a heathen god whereby the Roman women would undress and stand in the nude to be whipped by the men with the whips they made from the hides of the animals they had just slain; all for the superstition that this ritual made the women fertile.
Centuries removed and the romantic love aspired to by Saint Valentine remains while the Roman pagan traditions of antiquity have been erased from memory and practice. The old Roman feast of Lupercalia was not “love” but an abrogation of human dignity. On the other hand, someone willing to die for love certainly deserves to have the day of love in his honor.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and a current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.