What is the origin of this odd holiday? Is it Pagan? Christian? Secular? Just a corporate con job to sell greeting cards? Should people of biblical faith and practice observe Valentine's Day? You decide. Here are a few facts to consider.
A lot of unanswered questions remain about this and other ancient holidays. What we know is that the origins of the festival are dark, and the popular valentine hearts hold a much bloodier story than most suspect.
How many real "Saint Valentines" there may have been is debated. As with Saint Nicholas (i.e. the historic Santa Claus) the accounts attributed to him may be composite of different men.
One common tradition attributes the origin of the holiday to a man dubbed "Saint Valentinus of Roma." According to this version he was imprisoned for performing weddings for religiously ineligible soldiers and for ministering to imprisoned Christians and helping them escape Roman custody. Some accounts say he was a Roman Pagan priest with a good heart, while others say he was Christian convert who was finally executed for trying to convert Emperor Claudius to Catholicism. Whichever is the case, for his crimes against Rome this Valentinus was beheaded on February 14, circa 270 outside Rome's Flaminian Gate.
In order to substantiate his elevation to Catholic sainthood (miracles are required for this) it is said that while awaiting his execution Valentinus healed his jailer's daughter of blindness. It is also claimed that on the eve of his death he penned a farewell note to her, signing it, "from your Valentine."
Once the Catholic bishops came into power, the holiday was established to commemorate his faith and service to Christian love. Pope Julius I (December 5, 1443 - February 21, 1513), known as the Fearsome Pope (and the Warrior Pope), built a church near Ponte Mole in Valentinus's honor. The grave of a Valentinus of Rome was discovered in a Roman Christian catacomb in the 1930's and is generally accepted as the grave of the Valentinus for whom the holiday is named. It is therefore generally acknowledged that he was a real person.
Before Valentinus of Rome
The origins of the holiday clearly predate Valentinus of Rome. For that we must look back to the Roman Lupercalia purification festival. The emerging Christian religion had banned the biblical holidays by the fourth century, and was now establishing its own observances by blending together the diverse Pagan traditions of the Empire. As with Saturnalia/Christmas, the rites of Lupercalia were reworked and Christianized for Church consumption.
The Pagan festival of Lupercalia probably predates the Roman Empire. It was normal practice for the Romans to incorporate the religious practices of its conquered peoples. The Church maintained this Roman tradition and used it to establish the Universal (Latin: "catholic") Church traditions and holidays.
The purpose of the Lupercalia festival was to purge evil spirits, to purify the areas of observance through washings with 'holy water', and to encourage fertility for the continued prosperity of the region. The Roman month Februarius (our February) is named for the Februatio portion of the Lupercalia festival. For this reason February is often called the Month of Love.
The popular Norman celebration of Galatin's Day occurred around the same time of year and it impacted the development of the Christian holiday as well. The word galatin meant "lover of women." There were many fertility festivals in February including the very popular Imbolc and Oimelc. These types of fertility festivals were going on across the Roman Empire and were gradually being Christianized.
In the fourth century, as the Catholic Church was unifying the religions of their newly acquired empire into a single religious power structure, they recalled how Emperor Claudius II (i.e. Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius Augustus, May 10, 213 - January 270) had executed two men - both named Valentine - on February 14 in different years. The bishops chose to honor their martyrdoms with a religious festival (it is uncertain which of the two martyrs, or perhaps both, were being honored). In the fifth century Pope Gelasius (died November 19, 496) combined the Valentinus festival with Lupercalia to create the Christian holiday known in English as Saint Valentine's Day. The word "Saint" has now generally been dropped for the holiday. Like Mardi Gras, the celebrations have largely become an embarrassment to the Church.
During the Lupercalia celebrations the drunk revellers removed their clothing and frolicked naked in the streets playing various games and performing sundry sacrifices to the various gods. Young women would line up hoping to be chosen by the more virile of the naked men in order to be impregnated by them or in some cases to find a life partner.
While the romantic symbolism of the valentine hearts are debated -- some believe they represent the female sex organs or buttocks, Cupid's bow, etc. -- a more likely meaning may be considered. Animal hearts from the Lupercalia sacrifices of goats and dogs were likely extracted and given to the chosen women as both trophies and amulets. The memory of these sacrificial organs live on.
The mating selections were made in different ways. Sometimes names were drawn from a pot and sometimes the men would compete for the more desirable women. Children born around Samhain (which became All Saints Eve or Halloween) nine months later were considered especially blessed due to these unions. This is the origin of the romantic aspect of the holiday and of the candy hearts according to my research.
According to the research of Noel Lenski, an historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, during Lupercalia the men of the villages would sacrifice a goat and dog to the gods and then beat the women with the hides of the recently killed creatures. This was presumably intended to spark religious ecstacy and summon the animal spirits, thereby increasing virility and the likelihood of impregnation and successful births.
Once the proper sexual pairings were determined by lot or competition, the naked fur covered couple would engage in sex in the fields or other places. A known related practice would support the likelihood that orgies also occurred during these celebrations and that the temple prostitutes granted their services freely during the festival so that sex was available to and expected of everyone. Ensuring a strong and consistently growing population for the community was everyone's concern and was regarded as a social necessity. While we today would not support such activities, nor does the Torah, there was an inner logic to the rites that went beyond mere hedonistic frenzy. Consider that most Western nations today are at or below the limits of reproduction required to preserve our societies. As the New York Times reported, 2.1 is largely regarded as the "replacement rate," the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country's current population level. For much of Europe that number is now 1.3. In the USA that number is currently 1.88. This is in part due to the ongoing abortion holocaust and in part due to the dietary changes that are reducing sperm counts. The ancients took this threat seriously. The cultural and religious make-up of Western Society is being fundamentally altered. Within a generation or two Europe will be Islamic, within a few more the US will be as well, simply because of their higher birth rates.
With the creation and ascendency of the Christian religion in the fourth century, the Lupercalian, Galatin and similar rites were reworked and replaced by the Church approved Saint Valentine's Day observances. Today the celebrants remained clothed, hook up in fine restaurants, offer candy hearts to one another instead of the hearts of animals, and engage in sex behind closed doors. The essential Februarius stress on love and sex remains in effect however, although in a sanitized form. Once Hallmark and other corporate interests became involved in 1913, any hope that the fertility festival might end were gone. Valentine's Day is here to stay.
Should you observe Valentine's Day? Personally, I'm not sure how to biblically nor halachically support the observance of a Christianized Pagan fertility festival, even as it is practiced today, as an essentially Secular custom. Do the origins of popular traditions matter or only their present versions? Each of us must decide this for ourselves. These are the origins.
Acknowledgements: This study includes research done by Noel Lenski and published by NPR, Catholic.org, the New York Times, Life News, and Wikipedia.
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