The True Origin of Valentines Day: Saint Valentine vs the Pagan Lupercalia

Dive into the history of Valentines Day. How did Valentines Day come to be? Where did Valentines Day originate from?

As the name suggests, the 14th of February was the feast day of Saint Valentine. However, since 1969, Saint Valentine has been stricken off the list of saints for international veneration1. Even then, Valentines Day continues to be celebrated.

On the other hand, records show that similar celebration began long before San Valentinus even existed. What is the true history of Valentines Day before this festival became the feast day of St. Valentine?

Valentines Day is an occasion where people give flowers to their beloved.

Name Origin of Valentines Day

Though widely celebrated among Christian countries, many know not of the saint in whose honor Valentines Day was held — or that Valentines Day was held in honor of a saint at all. People simply think of Valentine’s Day as the best time for romance and dating.

Simply called Valentines Day most often, the full name of this feast is Saint Valentine’s Day. As the name suggests, this is the feast day of St. Valentine. Who was this Christian saint venerated on February 14?

Who was Saint Valentine?

Valentine … whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.

— Pope Gelasius I

While there are several saints called Valentine, or Valentinus (Latin), in the Catholic Church, the Saint Valentine of February 14 is an obscure figure. No historical record exists documenting the life of the saint of Valentines Day except for stories propagated much, much later.

In these stories, Saint Valentine was a Catholic priest who offered sacraments to soldiers and Christians under persecution. These sacraments, which included marriage, violated the law at the time, and led to the martyrdom of St. Valentine, whose death took him on February 14.

Did the death of Valentine, the saint of brides and grooms, pave the way to this romantic celebration each February 14?

While the idea is prevalent among Christians, this may not in fact be the case, on account that the origins of Valentines Day predate both the death and birth of Saint Valentine. Exactly when did this romantic holiday start?

Valentines Day is known less as a saint’s feast day and more as a day for romance.

When was Valentines Day first held?

Saint Valentine’s day of feast was established on February 14 by Pope Gelasius in 496 AD, around two decades after the collapse of the Roman Empire. While the Roman Catholic Church honors St. Valentine on February 14, the Eastern Orthodox celebrates St. Valentine’s Day on July 62.

With the date rather inconsequential in view of the inconsistency between the two churches, is there more to February 14 besides being his day of death that it became a desirable place for Saint Valentine in the Catholic calendar? How was romance so highly attributed to St. Valentine despite him being a priest? When did romance actually suffuse Saint Valentine’s Day?

The origins of Valentines Day have links to Venus, the Roman goddess of love (Aphrodite in Greek).

When did Saint Valentine’s Day become a day for romance?

For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird comes there to choose his mate.

— Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Birds

The earliest recorded association of Valentines Day with romance comes in 1382 from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parliament of Birds, a long-winded poem that relates the story of two male eagles vying for the love of a female eagle near a temple of Venus on St. Valentine’s Day.

At that point in time, this day was the start of spring, when birds start arriving for the breeding season in England  (this time changes in the calendar through centuries, especially when the calendar shifted from Julian to Gregorian calendar3).

As can be literally interpreted from the poem, there’s no direct association of Saint Valentine’s Day with the season of mating among birds, and by extension the season of romance among humans; St. Valentine’s Day was mentioned merely as point of reference: only because Saint Valentine’s day of feast fell on the same date in the calendar as the start of birds’ breeding season.

However, is there more to February 14 besides the mating season of our avian friends that makes this day so romantic? Did the Roman deities of love, Venus and Cupid, starred in Chaucer’s poem for no higher purpose than a cast of characters? Or was there a romantic feast parallel to the amorous season of birds that used to take place in the middle of February in Europe: one that celebrated love and courtship the way St. Valentine’s Day never did?

Lupercalia, the Roman festival before Saint Valentine’s Day

The Pagan Festival of Lupercalia

If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.

— Pope Gelasius I (to Roman senate)4

Old ways die hard, and some have a funny way of resurrecting even after centuries of death. Lupercalia was an important ritual in Rome5, held in the middle of February to bring in purification and fertility. In this fertility ritual, goatskin-clad priests ran around the city brandishing fresh goatskin dipped in blood, while women would come in the way to be slapped by the blood-stained goatskin in hopes of better chances of pregnancy6.

By the end of the 5th century, the practice of Lupercalia was abolished. This was done by the efforts of the same pope who declared Valentine a saint — Pope Gelasius I6. Indeed, in place of Lupercalia came Saint Valentine’s day of feast, which, like most Christian rituals, was a rather grave and solemn celebration, and lacked obvious connection with romance and courtship. Was it the end for Lupercalia?

Valentines Day fell around the start of mating season for birds.

Did Saint Valentine end Lupercalia?

So this noble Empress [Nature], full of grace,
Bade every fowl to take its proper place,
As they were wont to do from year to year,
On Saint Valentine’s day, standing there.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Birds

While the Catholic Church managed to end the festival of Lupercalia, the natural environment that inspired the original festival remained.

Native culture is always receptive of its environment, much more so the pagan, which celebrates Nature’s many facets and seasons. The festival that the pagan of Rome held in mid-February celebrated fertility and marked the advent of the mating season.

In Europe, most animals, especially birds, become sexually active once a year. Spectators relish this season filled with the spectacle of courtship in the animal kingdom. Celebration of courtship, indeed, spills over to the human lot.

While the festival was never called Lupercalia again, its romantic spirit survived in St. Valentine’s Day. Romance remains the highlight of February 14. Can the pagan celebration of love ever take back its former glory?

Valentine Card from the 1900’s

The Rebirth of Romance in Saint Valentine’s Day

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1600)

Though the Church tried to keep St. Valentine’s Day as solemn as other Christian celebration, the earthy spirit of courtship and romance slowly, yet unstoppably, bubbled into the surface every February 14.

Association of Valentines Day with romance survived through the Middle Ages. What with the holiday coming with the influx of amorous birds like Chaucer told in his poem, birds gradually became the symbol of lovers on Valentine’s Day, figuring as prominently as the shapes of heart.

By the 18th century, it was common practice to send letters to lovers and friends on Saint Valentine’s Day. By the 19th century, printed cards, otherwise known as Valentine cards, became most popular in communicating love7. How did  the holy and sacred St. Valentine cope with the mightily growing romanticism of his feast day?

From me to you: Valentine greetings

The Metamorphosis of Saint Valentine

Sweet, amorous romance between couples has always been an awkward thing to associate with the celibate priest, and yet that’s how Saint Valentine’s Day is. As if to relieve the discordance between St. Valentine and his day, remarkable legends about the Christian saint came to surface, including the life story of Saint Valentine, of whom little was actually known other than his death on February 14.

Valentine the saint was rumored to have been jailed for serving the sacrament of marriage to Roman soldiers, which was made illegal by the Roman emperor Claudius II. On the eve of his execution, St. Valentine, was reputed to have written a card to his jailer’s daughter, signing it as from “Your Valentine,”8 which supposedly explains how Valentine cards are signed.

In the end, Saint Valentine was not able to cope with the excessive romance of his feast day. In 1969, St. Valentine was stricken off the calendar of saints for international veneration1.

Even then, the spirit of romance lives on in Valentines Day across the world. In St. Valentine’s stead, the only figure that remains prominent on St. Valentine’s Day is the cuddly little cupid wielding a bow and arrow. This cupid happens to be a remnant of the old Lupercalia.

A fertility ritual, the origin of Valentines Day, was not complete without Cupid, the Roman god of love (Eros in Greek).
Source: Ricardo André Frantz via Wikimedia Commons

Origin of the Valentine Cupid

‘Neath a tree, by a well, saw I displayed,
Cupid, our lord, his arrows’ forge and file;
And at his feet his bow all ready lay.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Birds

The chubby little cupid on Valentines Day is no angel. Neither was the cupid in his beginnings a generic creature. A Roman festival imbued with fertility like Lupercalia is incomplete without Cupid, the god of love in Ancient Roman mythology. Called Eros in Greek, this little winged god keeps arrows poisoned with romantic love and, with his bow, shoots souls, be they god or human, throwing them deep in love with another. See also Cupid the God of Love.

On Valentines Day, Cupid is popularly displayed against a red heart.
Source: Deomar Pandan’s Shop

The Spirit of Love lives on.

Over 15 centuries after the abolition of Lupercalia, the spirit of love lives on in Valentines Day. More refined and no longer limited to courtship, Valentine’s Day is a holiday when people give their lover, family and friends those Valentine cards, as well as flowers, chocolates and gifts. Whether it was the feast day of St. Valentine or not, what matters most to the contemporary person is, people can communicate their love on Valentines Day. Would Valentines Day ever be complete without love or romance?

Would Valentines Day be complete without love or romance?

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  1. Calendarium Romanum (1969) of Libreria Editrice Vaticana, page 117
  2. Martyr Valentinus the Presbyter and those with him at Rome by the Orthodox Church in America (Accessed January 28, 2019)
  3. Jack B. Oruch with St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February in Speculum, Vol. 56 (1981), page 534–565
  4. Pope Gelasius’ Epistle to Andromachus
  5. The Lupercalia (1921) by Alberta Mildred Franklin, page 79.
  6. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 17, page 126
  7. Valentine cards reveal Britain’s relationship history
  8. St. Valentine by Catholic Online
Published January 20, 2014