Valentine’s Day: Pagan or Christian?

Valentine’s Day: Pagan or Christian? February 8, 2016

Valentine’s Day is one of America’s biggest holidays, in fact it’s so big that it only ranks behind Christmas in terms of dollars spent. This year Americans are expected to spend over 17 and a half billion dollars on the holiday. Valentine’s Day is big business and it’s incredibly popular, 62% of us claim to celebrate it each year. These are incredibly surprising numbers, especially since Valentine’s Day is a rather oddball holiday.

Unlike most of the holidays on the American calendar Valentine’s Day is essentially a private holiday generally celebrated two people at a time.* Most of our holidays are designed to be communal affairs and revolve around social and family gatherings. That’s never been the case on February 14. (With the weird exception of Valentine’s Day in our schools. Most of us probably remember handing out tiny little cards with superheroes or whatever else printed on them. That was the only time I’ve ever shared Valentine’s Day with anyone other than a date or my wife.)

"Diana with Cupid" by Pompeo Batoni, from WikiMedia.
“Diana with Cupid” by Pompeo Batoni, from WikiMedia.

Valentine’s Day also lacks any real religious origin. Christmas, Halloween, and Easter can all be traced back to various ancient pagan and Christian traditions. Valentine’s Day, despite its associations with a rather dubious Catholic saint, lacks significant old pagan and Christian precedent. Valentine’s Day is a quirky little holiday, so quirky that we are probably celebrating it on the wrong day of the year!

Not a pagan holiday in the traditional sense. Over the centuries many historians have attempted to connect Valentine’s Day to the Roman celebration Lupercalia and this connection makes sense if one is only looking at dates. Lupercalia was celebrated February 13-15, but its proximity to our modern Valentine’s Day is the only thing the two holidays share.

The Roman historian Plutarch described the holiday in his work Morals:

Why do the Luperci sacrifice a dog? The Luperci are they that run up and down naked (saving only their girdles) in the Lupercal plays, and slash all that they meet with a whip.

Solution. Is it not because these feats are done for the purification of the city? For they call the month February, and indeed the very day Februatus, and the habit of whip ping with thongs they call februare, the word signifying to cleanse. And to speak the truth, all the Grecians have used, and some do use to this very day, a slain dog for an expiatory sacrifice; and among other sacrifices of purification, they offer whelps to Hecate, and sprinkle those that need cleansing with the puppy’s blood, calling this kind of purifying puppification. Or is it that lupus is λύϰος, a wolf, and Lupercalia are Lycaea; but a dog is at enmity with a wolf, therefore is sacrificed on the Lycaean festivals? Or is it because the dogs do bark at and perplex the Luperci as they scout about the city? Or is it that this sacrifice is offered to Pan, and Pan loves dogs because of his herds of goats.

While I love the connection to the great god Pan, there’s nothing connecting the celebration described here to heart shaped chocolates. Lupercalia was associated with cleansing, and the tradition may have influenced the Christian celebration of Candlemas, but that’s not Valentine’s Day. Later on the holiday of Lupercalia would be romanticized a bit with tales of young lovers coming together during the celebration, but those stories arose after Valentine’s Day become a popular holiday.

"Reclining Venus with Cupid" by Guido Reni.  From WikiMedia.
“Reclining Venus with Cupid” by Guido Reni. From WikiMedia.

Saint Valentine probably wasn’t a real guy, or guys. There might have been an actual (Saint) Valentine, or even Valentines, but we don’t know very much about him if he was real, and he certainly had nothing to do with love and romance. Tales of Valentine as a crusader for marriage are abundant this time of year, they are also all malarkey.

The Saint in an old etching, from WikiMedia.
The Saint in an old etching, from WikiMedia.

There were two Valentines allegedly martyred on February 14, but none of their stories originally included any tales of love, and they also weren’t written down for centuries. Like many “saints” of that era they could be entirely fictitious or perhaps simply martyrs who were turned into legend. We have no way of knowing for sure. There were also several other Valentines (perhaps as many as 30!) not related to the person (or persons) whose feast day was celebrated on February 14. Don’t take my word for it here either, we know so little about Saint Valentine that the Catholic Church “discontinued liturgical veneration of him in 1969.”

The first reference to Valentine’s Day comes from Geoffrey Chaucer (and yes, that Chaucer). When we think of Chaucer today we generally think of his Canterbury Tales but during his lifetime he was widely known as a love poet, with one of those odes to love being especially important in the development of Valentine’s Day. Written sometime between 1370-1380 Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls is a poem dedicated to courtly love in the fullness of Spring. It also has the first mention of Valentine’s Day:

And in a clearing on a hill of flowers
Was set this noble goddess, Nature;
Of branches were her halls and her bowers
Wrought according to her art and measure;
Nor was there any fowl she does engender
That was not seen there in her presence,
To hear her judgement, and give audience.

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,
Of every species that men know, I say,
And then so huge a crowd did they make,
That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
Was so full, that there was scarcely space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.

Translation by A. S. Kline

Chaucer’s creation of Valentine’s Day was also linked to the beauty of the Earth in early Spring, here personified as a goddess. So while the actual holiday probably can’t be linked with any ancient pagan custom, certainly the imagery invoked here by Chaucer is rather “pagan.” Chaucer’s use of “Valentine’s Day” occurs two more times in the poem, with another reference to the saint of the same name.

William Blake's Geoffrey Chaucer
William Blake’s Geoffrey Chaucer

Curiously, Chaucer’s poem might have been an attempt to romanticize a different time of year, one more likely to be associated with Spring and courtship than mid-February. One of the myriad Valentines mentioned earlier had a feast day on May 3 (1), and a love holiday celebrated around the maypole feels really appropriate to me, more so than February that’s for sure. Many of the Valentine’s Day tropes we expect today would be far more appropriate near the first of May.

What Chaucer was trying to accomplish with his references to a Valentine’s Day is a bit of a mystery. He was obviously trying to link his poem to a particular time of year, but he chose a rather laborious way to go about it. Whatever the reasoning, Chaucer continued referencing the day in other poems and the idea was quickly picked up by his peers. Within fifty years the term “valentine” was being used as a way to describe a lover, with Valentine’s Day settling into its now traditional date of February 14.

If Valentine’s Day is not an ancient pagan tradition, why does so much of it’s iconography look pagan? This is a question that has never really been tackled by historians, but is worth speculating on. “Love” is often a difficult idea to express, especially in a reserved manner. One of the advantages of the Greek and Roman gods is that they often “personify” certain things. A painting of Aphrodite immediately brings to mind beauty, and pictures of Cupid make us think of getting shot with his arrows.

"Venus and Cupid," artist unknown.  From WikiMedia.
“Venus and Cupid,” artist unknown. From WikiMedia.

Besides, how romantic would Valentine’s Day be today if someone had decided that pictures of a decapitated St. Valentine were romantic? Old guys without heads attached to their bodies do very little for passion, add that to the sexually neutered Jesus and it’s easy to see why Cupid caught on so quickly (and absolutely, it’s as much his holiday today as it is any saint’s).

However you celebrate (or don’t) I wish you and your beloveds a most happy Valentine’s Day.

*Though if you have several Valentines, good for you!

1. Bruce David Forbers, America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, pages 60-61, University of California Press, 2015. This is a most excellent book and is required reading for holiday history nerds such as myself.

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