Saint Valentine may not have directly inspired our romantic holiday, but each of the saints that were martyred showed the ultimate human love of laying down their lives for the love of the Lord.
Many of us celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14th with chocolates, roses, and candy. We buy romantic cards and make dinner reservations weeks in advance. Perhaps we feel excited by the holiday, or maybe even burdened about it, but what do we know about the history of Valentine’s Day? Many of us claim it is a made-up corporate holiday, but is there more to the story? Who was the real Saint Valentine, and why do we celebrate this holiday?
Was There a Real Saint Valentine?
There was, in fact, a real Saint Valentine. Actually, there were multiple. Valentine was a very common name in ancient Rome. According to history.com, there are stories of at least 50 different saints named Valentine. Some of these may have actually been the same person, but over time, the stories were separated so much that they were thought to be about different people. Two of these stories, likely to be about the same man, began in the 500s and tell a typical martyr tale of a Saint Valentine, including the miracles that he performed and his terrible death. One of the most notable miracles performed is said to have been a letter that Valentine wrote in the 200s to a young blind girl he had tutored. The letter was written just before he was martyred and signed, “Your Valentine.” The girl is said to have miraculously gained her sight to be able to read the letter. Most of the legendary stories we have about Saint Valentine, however, have nothing to do with romantic love or the holiday that we celebrate every February. In the Catholic tradition, there are historical stories that suggest St. Valentine performed Christian marriages when Roman Emperor Claudius II outlawed them. Perhaps that is why we associate the saint with the holiday of love.
As far as the date of our Valentine’s Day, The Catholic Education Resource Center tells us that, in early tradition, there are three specific Saint Valentine’s who share February 14th as a feast day, indicating that the date has been associated with the person Saint Valentine much longer than with the holiday of Valentine’s Day. Claudius II is said to have had Valentine murdered on this date. Some have suggested that Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14th as a Christian response to the ancient pagan festival, Lupercalia, which was celebrated in Rome every February 15th. Having been traced back to the 6th century BC, this festival involved animal sacrifice to appease the she-wolf mother of Remus and Romulus, the mythical founders of Rome, as well as to the fertility god, Lupercus. After the sacrifice, a feast occurred, and men ran around naked or nearly-naked and whipped women with strips of hide from the sacrificed animals. The men would then randomly choose a woman to couple with during the ceremony and sometimes longer.
A Christian response to a violent and sexually immoral festival by honoring wholesome, biblical love is not a far-fetched idea. It was common for Christians to borrow from pagan celebrations for their holidays or to create a holiday that was more Christ-honoring. However, there is no solid historical proof that Valentine’s Day evolved from Lupercalia.
How Did Our Modern Valentine’s Day Begin?
It appears to have been a commonly held belief in Medieval France and England that birds began to pair on February 14th. Geoffrey Chaucer, a London poet now known as the “Father of English poetry,” wrote The Parliament of Fowls in the late 1300s to celebrate the wedding of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. This romantic poem includes the lines:
“For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take.”
“You know that on Saint Valentine’s day,
By my statute and through my governance,
You come to choose- and then fly your way-
Yout mates, as I your desires enhance.”
According to history.com, after this poem was written, others copied the practice of writing love poems to their romantic interests. By the 1400s, these love poems were often called valentines. At this point, stories about a real Saint Valentine being linked to romance begin to appear. Perhaps we have the great poet Chaucer to thank for our Valentine’s Day.
Notes of love or friendship continued for the next several hundred years, but things really took off in the early 20th century when Hallmark began to mass-produce greeting cards. Suddenly it became much easier to give Valentines to multiple people. The past hundred years have seen greater technology and means of mass production, and we now include not only cards but chocolate, candy, flowers, and more in our Valentine’s Day celebrations. It is even quite common for public elementary school classrooms to have parties to celebrate the occasion!
A Biblical View of Valentine’s Day
While the Bible predates Valentine’s Day and the stories we have about the real Saint Valentine, we still know clearly where God stands on love. In fact, 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God IS love!” Saint Valentine may not have directly inspired our romantic holiday, but each of the saints that were martyred showed the ultimate human love of laying down their lives for the love of the Lord. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends” (John 15:13). Song of Songs provides us with an entire book about romantic love between a man and woman. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 describes love’s characteristics: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” We know that “a friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17) and that “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The Bible presents all different kinds of relationships and teaches us, “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18.) We know that God designed us to be in community and that “we love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
When we read the Bible, we see love throughout all of it, from beginning to end. Love is the story of Jesus. Love is the character of God. Love is the greatest of traits (1 Corinthians 13:13.) We can celebrate this fun holiday in a godly way even if its history is less about any actual Saint Valentine and more about cultural customs. We can and should celebrate love on February 14th and every other day. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12.)
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Kieferpix
Megan Moore is a military spouse and mom of 3 (through birth and adoption). A speech-language pathologist by training, she now spends her time moving around the country every couple of years. She is passionate about special needs, adoption, and ice cream.