Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Valentine’s Day
St. Valentine’s Day has become one of the major secular holidays in the United States. The day itself is one of the few saint’s days retained in the Book of Common Prayer of 1628 and following. While the day has been part of Lutheran calendars the adoption of this commemoration has not been uniform among Lutherans.
The claims surrounding Valentine’s Day are that it was originally a pagan festival (or more than one pagan festival) which the Church decided to embrace while trying to get rid of the pagan practices. In particular the notion of romance in modern times is viewed as the principle evidence that St. Valentine’s Day is thought to be in reality the old Roman festival of Lupercalia and JunoFebruata or Juno the Fructifier, Roman Goddess of Women and Marriage, or Feralia, or Parentalia. Very often these Roman festivals are blended together in descriptions about the history of Valentine’s day as if they were the same. Then, several ideas from modern times are mixed into the meaning of the Roman festivals as if to prove that modern practice has historical precedence in the ancient pagan rituals.
So we look first at what can actually be known about the pagan festivals that moderns claim are the source of Valentine’s Day traditions. Then we will look at the sources about who Valentine was so we can separate the historical memory of a man who gave up his life rather than fall from faith from the stories and practices that were added to his life.
Parentalia (Dies Parentales)
This was a Roman festival of the dead that took place from February 18-21, the last day was called Feralia. (Charles Simmons work on Ovid). Wm. Smith states that Parentalia was celebrated February 13-21, but does not list sources that demonstrate these dates (A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities). The one source he does list is Ovid, who describes Parentalia in Fasti (book 2:548 English, Latin) under February 21:
They neglected the Parentalia, Festival of the Dead.
It did not go unpunished: they say from that ominous day
Rome grew hot from funeral fires near the City.
I scarcely believe it, but they say that ancestral spirits
Came moaning from their tombs in the still of night,
And misshapen spirits, a bodiless throng, howled
Through the City streets, and through the broad fields.
Afterwards neglected honour was paid to the tombs,
And there was an end to the portents, and the funerals.
But while these rites are enacted, girls, don’t marry:
Let the marriage torches wait for purer days.
And virgin, who to your mother seem ripe for love,
Don’t let the curved spear comb your tresses.
What is important to note about Parentalia is that it is the opposite of a romantic holiday. Starting with the fourth to last line quoted above “But while these rites are enacted, girls, don’t marry” etc. Ovid goes on for several more lines in his crass way describing that intimacy, marriage, love, and romance all must not be practiced on this particular festival.
Feralia was celebrated on February 21st and is the last day of Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Regarding how this day was celebrated, again, Ovid is really the main source. In the same section of Fasti book 2 just before the quote above he wrote:
And the grave must be honoured. Appease your fathers’
Spirits, and bring little gifts to the tombs you built.
Their shades ask little, piety they prefer to costly
Offerings: no greedy deities haunt the Stygian depths.
A tile wreathed round with garlands offered is enough,
A scattering of meal, and a few grains of salt,
And bread soaked in wine, and loose violets:
Set them on a brick left in the middle of the path.
Not that I veto larger gifts, but these please the shades:
Add prayers and proper words to the fixed fires.
This custom was brought to your lands, just Latinus,
By Aeneas, a fitting promoter of piety.
He brought solemn gifts to his father’s spirit:
From him the people learned the pious rites.
Now, remember, this is Ovid. If there were any ancient author who might be considered sympathetic to modern notions of fornication and romance it would be Ovid.
But there is no support for the notion of a romantic lovers’ holiday based on these pagan practices. The closest modern practice in the United States would be Memorial Day or Día de los Muertos on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Juno Februata/ Juno the Fructifier
This particular holiday does not appear in any of the ancient literature. Nor does the name of Juno appear in this form in the ancient literature. That means, as far as a search on Perseus or a literature search in Classics journals, Juno Februata appears to be unknown to the ancient world.
The first mention of Juno Februata and the holiday is in Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (1756-9). Neopagans and wiccans have seized upon Butler’s words and created a whole mythology surrounding “Juno Februata” claiming the whole Lupercalia festival was her festival.
There are several ancient texts describing parts of Lupercalia. The date was February 15. Plutarch’s description is probably the most thorough. Plutarch also asks questions about the origin and nature of the festival.
As for the Lupercalia, judging by the time of its celebration, it would seem to be a feast of purification, for it is observed on the inauspicious days of the month of February, which name can be interpreted to mean purification, and the very day of the feast was anciently called Febrata. But the name of the festival has the meaning of the Greek “Lycaea,” or feast of wolves, which makes it seem of great antiquity and derived from the Arcadians in the following of Evander. Indeed, this meaning of the name is commonly accepted; for it can be connected with the she-wolf of story. And besides, we see that Luperci begin their course around the city at that point where Romulus is said to have been exposed. However, the actual ceremonies of the festival are such that the reason for the name is hard to guess. For the priests slaughter goats, and then, after two youths of noble birth have been brought to them, some of them touch their foreheads with a bloody knife, and others wipe the stain off at once with wool dipped in milk. The youths must laugh after their foreheads are wiped. After this they cut the goats’ skins into strips and run about, with nothing on but a girdle, striking all who meet them with the goat skin strips, and young married women do not try to avoid their blows, fancying that they promote conception and easy child-birth. A peculiarity of the festival is that the Luperci sacrifice a dog also.
(Plutarch Life of Romulus 21)
The date for Lupercalia is the 15th, not the 14th. So if the intent was to use Valentine’s day as a replacement, establishing it one day before Lupercalia would seem counterproductive. As far as the traditions of the festival of Lupercalia, it is hard to find any that actually have some kind of relation to the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day.
In fact, the first writer to claim that Valentine’s Day and the Lupercalia were in any way related was Francis Douce in his 1807 Illustration of Shakespeare (p. 470). And Douce was dependent upon Alban Butler’s article on St. Valentine in his Lives, mentioned above.
Already in 1931, William Green had shown that the Lupercalia traditions had changed dramatically from their origins by the time Pope St. Gelasius I (fl. 492-496) finally banned the festival. But even these changes had nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. [Epistolae Et Decreta see column 110 for Lupercalia. The letter "Gelasius Papa I. Adversus Andromachus Senatorem Caeterosque Romanos qui Lupercalia Secundum Morem Pristinum Colenda Constituebant.]
Lupercalia traditions were not romantic. And it is only through the imagination of writers over a thousand years after the festival disappeared that the festival came to be associated with romance.
The dates of Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia are different, the traditions are different, and the purpose for the festivals totally different. So, is there anything else that might suggest that the Lupercalia were really the source for Valentine’s Day?
There is the fact that it was Pope St. Gelasius I who abolished Lupercalia and who elevated Valentine to Sainthood. But he also elevated others to sainthood. He also dealt with other pastoral problems besides the remnants of Lupercalia. So we turn to what we can find out about St. Valentine.
St. Valentine’s Day was originally established as the commemoration of a martyr of the Church on the annual memorial of his death. The day was apparently established by Pope St. Gelasius I (Pope from 492-496). St. Valentine’s death was recorded as February 14. But there were possibly three different men named Valentine who died on this date in different years. Though Valentine may seem an unusual name to modern English speaking cultures, the name was fairly common in Rome and the early Latin Church. Today there are more than thirty Saint’s commemorated with the name Valentine at different times of the year. Two in particular are listed in the current list of Martyrs for February 14: St. Valentine of Terni who was martyred in 273, and St. Valentine of Rome who was martyred in 269.
St. Valentine of Terni
St. Valentine of Terni is listed in the Hieronymian Martyrology of the 5th century AD, included in the Martyrology of Bede (ca. 730), then in the Martyrology of Florus (825-40), again in the Martyrology of Adon (ca. 855), Martyrology of Usuard (ca. 875), and in the Roman Martyrology (late 16th century).
While St. Valentine of Terni is mentioned in all these martyrologies, there is nothing in them about romance, love, or about this bishop being particularly involved in promoting marriage in an culture against marriage.
St. Valentine of Rome
St. Valentine of Rome is not listed in the Hieronymian Martyrology, but is listed on February 14th along with St. Valentine of Terni in the Martyrologies of Bede, Florus, Adon and Usuard. The Roman Martyrology records:
“At Rome, on the Flaminian Way, in the time of Emperor Claudius, the birthday of St Valentine, priest and martyr, who after having cured and instructed many persons, was beaten with clubs and beheaded.”
Again, nothing about romance, love, or marriage. The highest virtue this man exhibits is one to encourage all Christians, holding on to the faith of Christ in the face of torture and death.
St. Valentine of Africa
The Catholic Encyclopedia lists this man, but does not give sources for what little is known.
As far as we have records these Sts. Valentine are examples of men who did not love their life unto death, but considered everything in this world, including their own lives as nothing compared to the gift of the resurrection in Jesus Christ.
Inventing the Memory of the Saint Valentine
Though within 300 years of his death some stories about St. Valentine would arise, it was one thousand years after his martyrdom people began to really fill in the gaps about St. Valentine’s life. Whether there were one, two, or three different men being commemorated, these authors seemed to combine them all into one.
5th or 6th Century A.D.
Passio Marii et Marthae
["Marius, Martha, Audifax et Abacuc Persae et Valentinus presb. m. Romae" (BHL 5543 and 5543a)]
It seems that the earliest expansion on St. Valentine’s life is that of persecution under Claudius. It is possible that these expansions represent the facts of what happened, but there are no currently known documents beside this one that are older than 1260 A.D. which make these claims. Here the expansion under Claudius includes the blind daughter of Valentine’s jailer receiving her sight after Valentine’s prayer. Then the Jailer’s household is converted. But this is not represented as a romance or love story. The addition that Valentine wrote a note to the Jailer’s daughter signing “Your Valentine” appears to be a modern addition.
From Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, compiled about 1260 is a repeat and expansion of the Passio Marii et Marthae.
Saint Valentine, friend of our Lord and priest of great authority, was at Rome. It happed that Claudius the emperor made him to come tofore him and said to him in demanding: What thing is that which I have heard of thee, Valentine? Why wilt thou not abide in our amity, and worship the idols and renounce the vain opinion of thy creance? Saint Valentine answered him: If thou hadst very knowledge of the grace of Jesu Christ thou shouldest not say this that thou sayest, but shouldest reny the idols and worship very God. Then said to Saint Valentine a prince which was of the council of the emperor: What wilt thou say of our gods and of their holy life? And Saint Valentine answered: I say none other thing of them but that they were men mortal and mechant and full of all ordure and evil. Then said Claudius the emperor: If Jesu Christ be God verily, wherefore sayst thou not the truth? And Saint Valentine said: Certainly Jesu Christ is only very God, and if thou believe in him, verily thy soul shall be saved, thy realm shall multiply, and he shall give to thee alway victory of thine enemies. Then Claudius turned him unto all them that were there, and said to them: Lords, Romans, hear ye how wisely and reasonably this man speaketh? Anon the provost of the city said: The emperor is deceived and betrayed, how may we leave that which we have holden and been accustomed to hold sith our infancy? With these words the emperor turned and changed his courage, and Saint Valentine was delivered in the keeping of the provost.
When Saint Valentine was brought in an house in prison, then he prayed to God, saying: Lord Jesu Christ very God, which art very light, enlumine this house in such wise that they that dwell therein may know thee to be very God. And the provost said: I marvel me that thou sayest that thy God is very light, and nevertheless, if he may make my daughter to hear and see, which long time hath been blind, I shall do all that thou commandest me, and shall believe in thy God. Saint Valentine anon put him in prayers, and by his prayers the daughter of the provost received again her sight, and anon all they of the the house were converted. After, the emperor did do smite off the head of Saint Valentine, the year of our Lord two hundred and eighty. Then let us pray to Saint Valentine that he get us pardon of our sins. Amen.
The first author to associate Valentine’s Day with romance was Chaucer. We are now more than a thousand years after the martyrdom of St. Valentine. Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400). from The Parliament of Fowls.
309 For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
310 Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
311 Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
312 And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
313 That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
314 So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
315 For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
(Online Medieval and Classical Library)
309 For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,
310 When every bird comes there his choice to make,
310 Of every species, that men might imagine,
313 That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
314 was so full that there was no more space
315 For me to stand, so full was all of the place.
Now, we have a young girl saved by Valentine and added the notion of romance.
The next literary mentions we have of Valentine’s Day are from John Gower 1332-1408. In his 34th and 35th Ballads Gower writes of St. Valentine and love, and the same gathering of birds on Valentine’s Day.
There is no evidence of Valentine Cards or messages before the writing of Charles, Duke of Orleans (1394–1465). After the Battle of Agincourt he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, writing the following in French to his wife:
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too soon,
And I for you was born too late.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.
I am already, etc.
My very gentle, etc.
Well might I have suspected
That such a destiny,
Thus would have happened this day,
How much that Love would have commanded.
I am already, etc.
Margery Brewes wrote the earliest example of an English language Valentine letter to her betrothed, John Paston. The text of the letters can be read at the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.
The Nuremburg Chronicle expanded the story of St. Valentine to include the ideas that Emperor Claudius had prohibited marriage. St. Valentine, wanting to obey God rather than men, continued to marry couples.
So much imaginative legend has grown up around St. Valentine that today it may be hard to separate fiction from truth. This leaves us to consider why it is that we have Saint’s days in our liturgical calendar. The purpose is that we may use their example of clinging to Christ against all the storms this world can throw at them, their examples of holding fast to the doctrine of Christ for the salvation of their souls, their examples of love for God and love for neighbor in spite of their own sinfulness in this sin stained world.
Christ said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Christ lived and died this example. He rose again to show He conquered Satan, Sin, and Death.
It wasn’t until the 1750s A.D. that men began to create the notion that the choice of St. Valentine’s day had other motivations than just the fact that February 14th was the day he was believed to have died.
This article is an effort to remove the chaff from the kernel that we may “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” without giving “heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.”