Not at All Today in History: St. Valentine
Oh, Valentine’s Day, how you don’t make any sense.
Valentine’s Day comes from the Catholic Feast of St. Valentine, but even that holiday is problematic. There are at least three early saints with that name, and it’s not clear which one Feb. 14 was meant to celebrate. The Orthodox Church actually has two different feast days for two of them…but they are on July 6 and July 30. Moreover, their stories grew up long after the fact of their lives and deaths.
This led the Catholic Church to strike Valentine from their liturgical calendar of celebration of saints in 1969 (along with a lot of other figures with dubious tales). This in no way means they don’t believe Valentine existed: there are thousands of saints, and only a fraction have a place on the calendar. They merely acknowledge that his history is highly speculative.
And there is absolutely nothing in early materials to suggest he has anything to do with romantic love.
No matter which St. Valentine you want to discuss, he is always a martyr: he is venerated because he died for the faith. Most early Christian saints are martyrs, a reflection of the persecution Christians faced in the first three centuries. Many of their deaths are gruesome (and probably exaggerated) such as being grilled to death, torn apart by animals or flayed alive.
The Feast of St. Valentine was not a party. It was a memorial for a man who died violently.
When Does the Romance Show Up?
Tales that connect him with romance only develop much later, including:
- He was arrested because he performed illegal weddings.
- He fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, to whom he wrote a letter signed “from your Valentine.”
In fact, the first connection between romance and the Feast of St. Valentine comes from Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, more than 1000 years after any version of Valentine lived. And even then he was talking about birds coupling on that day, not people.
Widespread giving of “valentines” has only taken place in the last couple centuries, although there are examples between Chaucer and today.
There is a modern trend to insist that Christian beliefs and practices (such as Christmas) all stem from pagan sources. In this case, some attempt to associate the Feast of St. Valentine with the Roman Lupercalia, which occurs at roughly the same time.
This idea fails in the same way many similar theories fail: actual similarity and span of time.
The Lupercalia was a fertility festival that involved animal sacrifice and the wearing of the skins of the sacrificed animals. Pieces of the hides were also used to slap livestock and people as an act of purification and blessing of fertility.
Fertility and romance have nothing to with one another. 99% of events involving fertility involve no romance whatsoever. Romance is an emotional connection. Fertility is reproduction, pure and simple.
According to the site Lacus Curtius, the suggestion that boys drew the names of girls out of a pot in order to pair up romantically during the Lupercalia was first mentioned in the 18th century. The same fact is reflected at Wikipedia, which cites Jack B. Orsch of the University of Kansas as the source debunking it, and who speaks generally on Valentine’s Day here.
(Yeah, not the greatest of sourcing, but, seriously, try finding historical information about Valentine’s Day on the internet. I dare you.)
So, really, not very similar.
Now to time. Even if you could argue that Valentine’s Day and the Lupercalia seem in the least bit similar, there’s the very problematic issue of timing. The Lupercalia stopped being celebrated around the 6th century. We don’t see romantic hints attached to St. Valentine until at least the 14th. No Christian sat around wondering, “We really need to liven things up. Hey, I heard about some cool pagan stuff 800 years ago. Let’s borrow that, but make up a Christian story so we don’t get in trouble.”
If you want to connect them, you need overlap. You at least need something that hints at the possibility of overlap. Instead, we have an 800 year gulf between two events that share little beyond a day on the calendar (and the Lupercalia is generally dated to February 15, anyway).