Decorative hearts, winged cupids, drawing lots, exchanging names, what is this all about? Learn the truth about this day.
What is the true origin of St. Valentines’ Day? What significance lies behind the date of February 14th? What purpose is there in keeping it?
Have you ever wondered why it is called Saint Valentine’s Day? Why do people become each other’s valentine for this particular day? Why are cards decorated with hearts and figurines of small nude boys, cupids?
The Bible, presumably the guidebook of all Christians, is silent about keeping such a day. Then how did we begin celebrating St. Valentine’s Day? What is the source of our beliefs and practices?
Centuries before the advent of Christianity, the pagan population of Rome observed a “Valentine’s Day” (handed down from the East) beginning on the eve of February 14th, although under a different name. It was a “love feast,” based, not on any Christian principle of true love, but on free sex. The Romans were well noted for their sexual immorality on their festive occasions, especially so on this particular night in February. It was a religious festival dedicated to the goddess of love. The Romans called it their Lupercalia.
The superstitions associated with this Roman love festival were numerous. The priests, the Luperci, would clothe themselves with strips of skin from sacrificed goats and run through the streets in Rome. “They bore whips in their hand, made of strips of goatskin; with these they struck women who ran in their way, desirous to escape from the reproach of barrenness. The thongs bore the name of februa, a word connected with purificatory ritual” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, Vol. xiii, p. 812).
Being one’s valentine on this day was indulged in by all. “It was about the middle of the month that the names of willing young ladies were put in a box and well shaken up, so that each young blood could draw out one at random; the girl thus won was to remain his companion while the gaieties lasted” (The English Festivals, Whistler, p. 90).
This festival was dedicated to the goddess Venus and the feast was “characterized in the later Roman period by wanton raillery and unkindled freedom.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, vol. III, p. 226). In Roman mythology, this goddess of sexual immorality had sons, called “Cupids,” who attended her on this festival. They were believed to cause love and also make it cease, a sort of love potion (Roman Antiquities, Alexander Adam, p. 279). This was done by shooting arrows at the hearts of the victims. Cupid was generally represented as a winged boy with bow and arrow, often shooting at a young man’s or a young woman’s heart. These cupids were naked, winged, and blinded, armed with a bow, arrows, and a torch.
Does this show any resemblance to the little nude boys on Valentine’s Day cards? The cupids are often used as decorative symbolism in theaters, cards, signs on inns, etc. Who was this Cupid? In later Roman times he was only one of many Romans gods. The Greeks knew him as Eros. But his history goes farther back than Greek or Roman times. In Egypt “this infant divinity was frequently represented with a heart or the heart-shaped fruit of the Persea, in one of his hands” (The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop, p. 189). “Thus the boy-god came to be regarded as the ‘god of the heart,’ In other words, as Cupid the god of love” (ibid.).
Seeing that the Roman love feast of Lupercalia was outright pagan, why then did the Christian-professing church accept and keep such a day, of course under a different name? Whatever possessed the leaders of the church to approve of this heathen fertility feast under the name of St. Valentine’s Day?
It all began at the time of Constantine the Great in the 4th century. It was this emperor who, it will be remembered, accepted orthodox Christianity. No longer considering himself a pagan, Constantine was encouraged to break with his pagan past. And one of several heathen feasts that had to go was the Lupercalia. But, this produced problems.
It was one thing for the Christianized emperor to forego what the church considered a purely pagan festival, but to get the Roman populace at large to cease observing this love feast was another matter. In fact, it proved impossible. The Roman populace wouldn’t hear of it.
It was hoped by church circles that the pagan populace would in due time be willing to give up this festival, but this, proved to be a false hope.
The Christian-professing church then decided that the only way this matter could be resolved was to let the great masses of the empire, now members of the church, keep the Lupercalia feast, but by another name and for another purpose.
It was the year A.D. 496 when Pope Gelasius I “Christianized” the festival and renamed it “St Valentine’s Day.” Here is why. Once the Roman emperors became Christians, the Orthodox church grew in numbers. Since her main concern was to convert the pagan populace within the empire as quickly as possible, she felt justified in making it easy on them. Church leaders “clearly perceived that if Christianity was to conquer the world it could do so only by relaxing the too rigid principles of its Founder” (Studies in the History of Oriental Religions, James Frazer, Book II, p. 202).
One way of gaining an ever-increasing influx of members was to blend and incorporate pagan beliefs and practices with Christian ones. “Thus at the first promulgation of Christianity to the Gentile nations, they could not be persuaded to relinquish many of their superstitions, which, rather than forego altogether, they chose to blend and incorporate with the new faith” (Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, John Brand, pl. xi). Thus “for almost every pagan ceremony, some Christian rite was introduced” (Clavis Calendaria, John Brady, vol. I, p. 196).
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. They could still draw lots for their valentines, but with the names of saints written on each lot. February 14th was now to be centered on Christian saints instead of pagan deities.
The church, in deciding to slightly alter the festival by giving it an acceptable name, went back to the 3rd century. There she came upon a tradition about a certain presbyter who had married couples secretly against the edict of Emperor Claudius II. He was caught and beheaded in A.D. 270. To honor this bishop, it was decided to call the February festival of love and purification after his name, Saint Valentine.
Later, the Protestant churches rejected the Catholic concept of the Virgin Mary and the saint’s association with St. Valentine’s Day. Instead, the people went back to drawing the names of ordinary young men and women. It became a less religious ceremony, but still retaining all the pagan embellishments of the Romans, and then some.
All the pagan trappings were maintained, Cupid was still there, the decorative “hearts” continued to be displayed, lots were still drawn as chance directed, and the day was still the original Roman day. It was also believed that birds were said to mate on this day. It was further a widely held tradition that the first person of the opposite sex one encountered on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day was to become the future spouse. And love potions were considered to be very potent on February 14th. People would let themselves go at parties often disregarding the inevitable consequences of such revelry.
Both in England and Scotland, St Valentine’s Day was a welcome diversion from the otherwise dull, cold winter season. Referring to a traveler to these areas in the last century, we read, “’On the eve of St. Valentine’s Day,’ he says ‘the young folks in England and Scotland, by a very ancient custom, celebrate a little festival. An equal of maids and bachelors get together; each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll and draw by way of lots. Fortune (the name of yet another pagan god) having thus divided the company into so many couples, the valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love’” (Book of Days, Robert Chambers, vol. I, part 1, p. 255).
No wonder that this “heathen, lewd, superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of the goddess” (Clavis Calendaria, John Brady, p. 277) as the Romans were want to do, can easily lead to illicit love and dire consequences.
Why, then do we allow our children to keep a festival that is shrouded in superstition, founded on rank pagan ideals, and based on a corrupting rather than an uplifting influence?
There is certainly a need to keep festive occasions and religious celebrations. In fact, God Almighty commands His people to observe festivals, His Festivals.
Notice however, what God says about Christians keeping religious festivals which do not emanate from His Word, the Bible. You read of it in the book of Deuteronomy. Here God warns His people Israel not to use pagan means and ways to worship Him. “When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou not be snared by following them, and after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their god? Even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 12:29-31).
This warning is reiterated in Jeremiah 10, verses 2-3. Here God commands, “Learn not the way of the heathen, for the customs of the people are vain”!
That is why God forbids keeping these pre-Christian festivals; they are vain, purposeless, and in the long run harmful. They blind us from the real purpose for mankind’s existence. They prevent us from seeing God’s Master Plan for His people. It is not that God has left His people without meaningful festivals. On the contrary, instead of the traditional “Christian” festivals, which reveal very little if anything of God’s Plan, God’s people keep the genuine festival days of God. These are full of meaning. By keeping them we understand the entirely of God’s purpose for us. Once we understand them, and keep them, we would not want to retrogress to the holidays the world offers.
God tells His people to observe the festivals He commands.