Every February 14th, Valentine’s Day comes around. It’s a time to celebrate love, romance, and everything that goes with it. For some, it’s a time to pull out all the stops with one’s romantic interests. For others, it’s just another day that ends with the letter “y.”
Whatever your level of enthusiasm is with this holiday, in today’s podcast I want to discuss the historical origins of Valentine’s Day, and what we can learn from its development throughout the centuries. We’ll look at it’s pagan origins, it’s saintly baptism, and the sappy sentimental Hallmarkification of it all.
The Pagan Origins Of Valentine’s Day
Dating back to as far as the 6th century B.C., from February 13th thru 15th, there was a pagan festival celebrated in ancient Rome by the name of Lupercalia. This was a fertility festival made to celebrate Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, in addition to a celebration of the founders of Rome.
At the beginning of this festival, priests of the order of Luperci would gather at a sacred cave where the infant founders of Rome were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf. The priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility purposes, and a dog for purification.
Then, the priests would then strip the goats hide, dip those strips in sacrificial blood, and take them into town, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat’s hide. Women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year.
Then, later in the day, all the young women of the city would place their names into a big urn. Later, a giant lottery would take place. The city’s bachelors would each take turns choosing a name, and would be paired for the next year with the woman they choose. As a result of this ritual, many of these pairings resulted in marriage.
Baptized By The Blood Of The Saints
By the end of the 5th century A.D., Lupercalia had devolved into a holiday that involved a lot of people simply running around drunk and naked.
In order to clean up society and the church a little bit, Pope Gelasius I outlawed the celebration of Lupercalia, and replaced it with Valentine’s Day. The holiday has a couple different Catholic saints associated with it.
One legend contends that there was a priest in the third century named Valentine. During his life, Emperor Claudius II decided single men made better soldiers than soldiers who had wives and families. As a result, he outlawed marriage for young men. Finding this law unjust, Valentine defied the emperor, and continued to perform marriage ceremonies in secret. When this was discovered, Valentine was put to death.
Another legend says that there was another man also named Valentine, who may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape from prison, where they were often beaten and tortured for their faith. Valentine was eventually caught and imprisoned,. But while in jail, Valentine fell in love with a woman who regularly visited him. Before his death, it is said that Valentine wrote her a letter signed, “From your Valentine.”
The Hallmark Holiday It’s Become
By the 14th century, Valentine’s Day started becoming associated with the beginning of the birds mating season in France and England. Eventually people would start sending each other Valentine greetings.
The oldest known valentine still in existence today comes from 1415 when Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Several years later, King Henry V hired a writer to compose a valentine to Catherine of Valois.
Chaucer and Shakespeare would eventually romanticize the holiday in their work, and helped make it become more popular throughout Britain and Europe. Handmade paper cards would become popularized during this time.
By the middle of the 18th century, it became common for people to exchange small tokens of affection and notes. The first mass produced card was made in the 1840’s by an Esther Howland, who has been called the “Mother of The Valentine.” And by 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Missouri began mass producing Valentine’s Day cards, and forever changed the world. According to the Greeting Card Association, it is estimated that 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making it the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. Christmas remains the largest.
Reflection: Eros, Agape, and Sentimentality
I find the history of Valentine’s Day fascinating. In it we see three different expressions of love.
We see the eros , or the “erotic,” form of love built into the origins of the holiday. It was steeped in pagan fertility rituals that taps into the raw and primal nature of love. It was a holiday grounded in our most basic human desire to have sex and to reproduce. And while as a Christian I might not care for the pagan elements of a festival designed to honor a false god, or the ways women were auctioned off by a lottery system, I think fundamentally the pagan origins of the holiday were still chasing after the good thing that God gave us to enjoy.
When the church attempted to baptize a pagan holiday in the Middle Ages, I appreciate what they were after. In it they turned the holiday from one focused on the eros form of love to the agape form of love. A love that is steeped in the sacrificial, and is ultimately life giving. It’s a love that ultimately exemplifies the type of love that Jesus Christ ultimately demonstrated in giving His life for our sins on the cross.
And then of course, we have the thing Hallmark has turned Valentine’s Day into. And while many of us might be tempted to cynically look down on such a “Hallmark Holiday,” I think such is unfortunate. For in the depths of all that love has to offer us, whether it is erotic or sacrificial, I think that there is tons of room for the corny sentimentality that Hallmark has to offer us all on such a holiday. Yes, I love my wife with eros and agape types of love. But I also love expressing my love for her in playfully corny and stupid ways. And the Hallmarkification of Valentine’s Day offers us the chance to indulge in the playful, cheesy, and whimsical sides of love.
Happy Valentine’s Day!