Is Valentine’s Day a Christian holiday? | Magazine Features
If you haven’t booked a table for two for tonight yet, sorry, it’s too late now. Restaurants with tantalizing “special” menus will be packed with couples, and restaurateurs may be blowing a prayer of thanks on Valentine’s Day. Greeting card companies and florists also have good reason to be grateful to this saint. But who was Valentine’s Day and what does he have to do with romance?
There are plenty of saints called Valentines, but only two of them seem to fit the bill. They were both clerics (one was a priest, the other a bishop), both were martyred in Italy around AD 269, and both are commemorated on February 14 (presumably the day they died). In fact, it was most likely the same man, especially since their stories are so similar. In each case, Valentine cured a child, the child’s family became Christians, and then Valentine was beheaded under Claudius II Gothicus. So, we can be quite confident that Valentine was a Christian clergyman martyred by the Roman Empire, like so many others. What is unclear is what this has to do with hearts and flowers.
Some people associate Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia, a Roman festival of purification and fertility that takes place on the 15th February. Its origins are ancient and obscure, but every year half-naked young men walked through Rome beating passers-by with strips of skin from a freshly sacrificed goat. Women were eager to be struck with the strips of bloody skin because it was believed to bring fertility and easy childbirth. It had nothing to do with love or romance. An 18th century historian claimed that Roman girls and boys put their names in a kind of “love lottery” at the Lupercalia and were paired up for a year, but this detail was borrowed (to put it mildly) from the medieval British traditions; this never happened in ancient Rome.
Valentine’s Day is a great time to reach out and demonstrate God’s love through friendship
The time lag between the end of Lupercalia and the beginning of the feast of Saint Valentine also excludes any connection. The Roman feast was banned in 494 by Pope Gelasius, but the first mention of celebrating the saint’s feast comes from a document written 200 years later, and the association with romantic love did not begin until ‘in the middle Ages.
Myths and legends
Could the romantic element come from the man himself? There are certainly romantic legends related to Valentine’s Day. One says that when Claudius forbade young men to marry, Valentine continued to perform marriage ceremonies in defiance of the edict. Another says he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter while awaiting execution, and when he went to her death he left her a note from “your Valentine”. It would be nice to think that Valentine’s Day, as it is now thought, always honors the deeds of a Christian saint. Unfortunately, none of these tales have any historical basis. Claudius Gothicus made not ban the marriage, and we have no idea what Valentin did while awaiting execution. These legends likely arose after Valentine’s Day had already been associated with romance, to explain this confusing connection.
The most likely connection between Valentine’s Day and romance seems to be, strangely, birds.
In the Middle Ages, birds were thought to select their mates in mid-February, which is when Valentine’s Day falls. Chaucer mentioned it in his poem from around 1381, “The Parliament of Fowles”:
“For it was Valentine’s Day, When every fowl comes there to take its mate”
This belief has made February 14 a good time for humans to try to associate as well. Throughout the Middle Ages, a tradition emerged of exchanging love tokens on Valentine’s Day, until the name Saint Valentine was permanently linked to declarations of love. If Valentin had been executed in another month, we might send the cards from Auxence or Maro instead.
We can be pretty sure that Valentine was a Christian clergyman martyred by the Roman Empire
The connection between the celebration of romantic love and a Christian martyr is entirely coincidental – but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should ‘fluff’ the whole thing. If you have a significant other, today is the perfect reminder to reaffirm your commitment to each other. And romantic love is not the only kind of love. If you know someone who is feeling lonely, struggling, or just having a hard time being single on Valentine’s Day, it’s also a great time to reach out, let them know you’re thinking of him and demonstrate God’s love through friendship. Even Pope Gelasius would surely approve of this.