SEXUAL LOVE has always been the essential ingredient in the observance of St. Valentine's Day. This was true in ancient Rome, during the Middle Ages, and it is true today. Moreover, the mid-February date of this observance has not changed. Only the name of the game has changed, since February 14 is the eve of the Roman festival originally called Lupercalia.
The Valentine of Roman days was less refined, however, than its modern celebration. After sacrifice of goats and a dog, the priests, called Luperci, traditionally ran, in two bands, a marked course around the city on this day, scantily dressed only in goatskin girdles and carrying strips of goatskin with which they struck women to take away their infertility. The strips bore the name februa, a word connected with februare, "to purify," hence the day was called Februatus and the month Februarius.
Lupercalia was, or became, connected with the legendary she-wolf (Latin lupus = wolf) who suckled Remus and Romulus, the eponymous founders of Rome; and "wolf" was a synonym in Rome for a sexually available woman. So the day became connected with Venus, goddess of sexual love. Venus' son Cupid also played an important part in this love feast.
Roman mythology ascribes to mother and son the power to instill passion in people, and with their love potion they also had the power to make love cease. Cupid is often portrayed shooting arrows into the hearts of hapless victims. Usually naked, winged and armed with a bow and arrow, cupids are still portrayed in modern times on Valentine cards, in theater decor and the like.
First Christian Valentine As can be well imagined, a bawdy festival of sex and love was popular with the masses of Rome. The Christian-professing church, on the other hand, had no desire to perpetuate Lupercalia and so tried to uproot this love feast. But the attempt met with failure. The pagan population of the empire, as well as many recently converted Christians, continued its observation.
Eventually the church decided that the only way this matter could be handled was to let the great masses of the empire, including members of the church, continue keeping the Lupercalia feast, but to rededicate it for another purpose. This policy of religious compromise was used quite effectively by the early church fathers.
Once the Roman emperors embraced Christianity, church growth became explosive. In order to quickly "convert" the pagan populace, the church felt it could not be too hard on prospective members. Some church leaders reasoned that if Christianity was to conquer the world, it could best do so by relaxing what the world perceived as too rigid principles of the teachings of Christ.
Another effective way of gaining members was to blend and incorporate popular pagan beliefs and practices with Christian ones — syncretism. Seeing that the masses could not be persuaded to relinquish many of their superstitious customs, the attempt was made to add Christian concepts to the superstitious feasts. The historical development of the Christian church shows that, for almost every pagan ceremony, some Christian rite was introduced.
So, beginning with A.D. 496, the Roman populace could still come to their love feast, no longer dedicated to Venus, the goddess of love, but to the Virgin Mary and the saints. The Lupercalia was officially christened "St. Valentine's Day." The attention of the masses on each February 14 was now to be centered on Christian saints. People could still draw lots for their "valentines," but with the names of saints written on them instead.
Valentine Becomes a Saint The name was chosen because third-century church records already revealed a tradition about a certain presbyter named Valentine who had married couples secretly against the edict of Emperor Claudius II and had been executed for so doing. He had now been elevated to sainthood, and as it happened, his day of commemoration was February 14, the same day as Lupercalia.
So Gelasius, bishop of Rome, officially "Christianized" Lupercalia and renamed it St. Valentine's Day.
But when the Protestants came on the scene, St. Valentine fell into the background, since Protestants did not hold to the concept that saints are worthy of celebration. People went back to drawing the names of ordinary young men and women choosing themselves partners for the celebration. Saints and Christianity had never become a major part of the festival anyway.
Cupid was still there. So were the arrowed hearts. Lots were still drawn as chance directed, the day was still the original Roman day and it was as popular as ever. In the late Middle Ages a lot of folklore developed, such as the belief that birds were said to mate on February 14. It was also held that the first person of the opposite sex one encountered on the morning of Valentine's Day was to become one's future spouse. Love potions were considered especially potent on that day.
A Christian's Obligation The fact that the origin of Valentine's Day is not saintly nor espoused in the Bible should make us think how many other Christian customs, concepts and even festivals are actually non-biblical in origin.
No one denies that there is a need for the keeping of festive occasions and religious celebrations. In fact, a Christian is biblically admonished to celebrate truly meaningful festivals that reveal man's purpose for his existence. But to opt for non-Christian festivals, often totally irrelevant and meaningless, can blind us to the real purpose the Creator intends us to understand.
Read the information concerning these festive occasions — the festivals observed by Christ and the apostles. They are fully explained in our free booklet Pagan Holidays - or God's Holy Days - Which? It's yours for the asking.