Holidays and Holy Days
V-Day: An Arrow in the Heart
Modern Christians are often uneasy about holidays, especially in Protestant North America. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for instance, banned the celebration of Christmas and penalized those who were caught celebrating it. It was thought to be a "Popish" and "pagan" holiday, owing much too much to the Roman festival called Saturnalia (after the great Latin god, Saturn). True Christians, these Purists argued, only celebrated Easter.
Still later, the whole domestic and private edifice of trees and turkeys and elaborate gift-giving (in part imagined as a reaction against the public drinking and wassailing) were a creation of the 19th century. And the evolution of that alternative tradition has many Christians on guard these days, trying to "keep the Christ in Christmas." Christ, it is feared, may have been trumped by Saint Nicholas. And twelve magically mysterious reindeer.
These same concerns are often voiced about Halloween. And now with Saint Valentine's Day as well. Is this a Christian or a pagan holiday?
If our starting point is the assumption that such a question is either/or, then we are almost sure to miss out on how interesting, and how lyrical, the subtle convergences between the Christian and the pagan could be in the ancient world. And how lyrical they continue to be in a Romantic age such as ours.
Saint Valentinus. It was a common enough name in the Roman Empire, deriving as it did from the Latin word for worthiness (valens). There are no fewer than seven distinct saints bearing this name on various Christian saints and martyrs rolls, primarily Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox lists.
There was also an important early Christian teacher in Rome by the same name, a heretical teacher of Christian esoteric wisdom who left a movement called "Valentinian" behind; naturally enough, there is no feast day for this renegade. But recent scholars like Elaine Pagels have reminded us of his influence, and of his brilliance.
We might well wonder about this multiplication of saints with the same name (but, then, the New Testament itself is well aware of the confusion caused by the presence of multiple people with the same names—all those Johns and Simons and Marys to contend with).
The most relevant Valentinus related to this holiday was a Roman priest (literally called a presbyter) who was allegedly martyred under the Emperor Claudius Gothicus (the conqueror of Gaul) at some time between 269 and 273 C.E. The legend suggests that he was arrested for performing secret marriages for Roman Christians, and that after his arrest, the emperor took a liking to him...until the young priest used his advantage to attempt a conversion of the emperor. That's when Valentinus was condemned, first to clubbing and then to stoning. When that failed to finish him off, he was beheaded. The priest's body was buried at the side of the Flaminian Way on February 14.
The second major Saint Valentinus was a bishop of Interamna (modern-day Terni), a high church official who was allegedly arrested, brought to Rome, and martyred there. His remains were later transferred back to Terni. In many of these various Valentinus legends, the most dramatic family resemblances concern the close attention that is paid to their violent death, coupled with an interest in the dramatic fate of the corpse.
Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. is William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. The author of six books, his two most recent are: God Gardened East: A Gardener's Meditation on the Dynamics of Genesis (Wipf and Stock, 2008) and This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity (Jossey-Bass, 2008).