February 14, 2020

The Myth of the Pagan Origins of Valentine's Day

By John Sanidopoulos

Many of the events and actions of the celebrants on Valentine's Day are derived from the ancient and pagan Roman feast of Lupercalia. One of the customs of the young people in this feast of Lupercalia was name-drawing. On the eve of the festival the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars. The boys individually drew girls' names from a box, and became paired with them until the following Lupercalia. The girl whose name was chosen was to be the boy's sweetheart during the feast and for the remainder of the year. The activities between the "sweethearts" at the feast was pretty wanton and very sexually oriented. Later, when Catholic priests wanted to abolish heathen customs, they assimilated the pagan custom by "Christianizing" it as a celebration of some "Christian" character or characteristic. In this case they substituted the names of saints for the names of girls in the drawing lot and later Pope Gelasius, who didn't like or believe in the Roman gods, turned the celebration into a church holiday by honoring St. Valentine's death on this day.

If you rely on what the majority of sources say about the history of Valentine's Day, the above summary is pretty much what you will get, often with additions to make the whole history of Valentine's Day appear more seedy and sinister. What you won't read however is the truth, because pretty much everything in the paragraph above is a lie. The truth of the matter is that the origins of Valentine's Day has absolutely nothing to do with a pagan holiday, nor is there anything seedy and sinister about it.

But why does everyone get it so wrong?

It all begins in the year 1756. This is the year Alban Butler published his Lives of the Saints, where we read the following about St. Valentine the Martyr commemorated on February 14th: "To abolish the heathens' lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honor of their goddess Februata Juno, on the 15th of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of Saints in billets given on this day."

Next we will jump to 1807, when the antiquarian Francis Douce embellished this explanation of Butler by offering a fuller description of the Roman festival, which he assumed to be Lupercalia, saying that it was celebrated "during the great part of the month of February...in honor of Pan and Juno.... On this occasion, amidst a variety of ceremonies, the names of young women were put into a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed." Douce then goes on to repeat Butler's account of the attempt to transform the Roman custom by substituting saint's names. He concluded that "as the festival of the Lupercalia had commenced about the middle of February, [the Christians] appear to have chosen Saint Valentine's day for celebrating the new feast; because it occurred nearly at the same time."

Finally, we come to 1972 when Alfred Kellogg and Robert Cox published Chaucer, Langland, Arthur. These two men offered the most complex version of the story - linking Lupercalia, Valentine and Chaucer. There we read how Pope Gelasius in 495 abolished Lupercalia and replaced it with a Christian festival of comparable importance that took place forty days after the birth of Christ - the Presentation of Christ or Purification of the Virgin or Candlemas celebrated on February 14th. They based this on a study by Cardinal Baronius in the 16th century. When the feast of the Presentation was transferred from February 14th to February 2nd (to accord with the transfer of the Christmas from January 6th to December 25th), Kellog and Cox assume Saint Valentine accidentally became associated with purification and fertility.

This is the history in summary of how Valentine's Day became associated with the pagan festival of Lupercalia.

However, recent scholarship has thoroughly debunked all these claims, which are based on faulty assumptions and misunderstood data. Professor Jack B. Oruch of the University of Kansas ("St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February," 1981), Henry Ansgar Kelly of the University of California, Los Angeles (Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, 1986) and Associate Professor Michael Matthew Kaylor of the Masaryk University (Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde, 2006) are the academics and researchers who have dismissed these antiquated claims.

These scholars charge that the traditions associated with "Valentine's Day", first documented in Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement of Foules and set in the fictional context of an old tradition, did not exist before Chaucer. He argues that the speculative explanation of sentimental customs, posing as historical fact, had their origins among 18th century antiquaries, notably Alban Butler. The claim that the modern customs of Saint Valentine's Day originate from the Roman Lupercalia customs they find to be unconvincing: they say there is no proof that the modern customs of Saint Valentine's Day can be traced to the Lupercalia, and the claim seems to originate from misconceptions about the festivities. They further argue that there is no written record of Pope Gelasius ever intending a replacement of Lupercalia.

Below are some facts to consider:

1. The name Valentine was popular in the Roman Empire. Several emperors and a pope bore the name. It is estimated that about thirty Valentine's and a few Valentina's were recognized as saints, primarily through martyrdom. The two most noteworthy were a Roman priest and the Bishop of Terni, both of whom were supposedly beheaded on February 14th by an emperor named Claudius, and buried on the Flaminian Way within sixty miles of each other. The earliest biographies of these two saints we know of date to the 6th or 7th century.

2. The name Valentine does not appear in the earliest list of Roman martyrs in 354, but there was a Saint Valentine venerated at this time based on the fact that Pope Julius I in the mid-4th century built a basilica to Saint Valentine in Rome. In the seventh century it was a major shrine, the first encountered by pilgrims coming from the north, and the Flaminian Gate nearby was then called the Gate of Saint Valentine. By the 13th century, Saint Valentine was widely venerated, his relics were in various churches, and shrines were built in his honor, including four churches in Rome.

3. The feast of the Presentation of Christ indeed was at one time celebrated on February 14th, but this only took place in the Christian East and never in Rome or the West. Furthermore, by the late 4th century Christians in the East and the West were celebrating Christmas on December 25th, which transferred at that time the feast of the Presentation from February 14th to the 2nd in the East. Pope Gelasius did not institute the feast of the Presentation, nor did he celebrate it on February 14th, nor did he celebrate it at all. In fact, the feast was not celebrated in the West until around the middle of the 7th century.

4. Pope Gelasius had nothing to do with the canonization of St. Valentine nor did he have anything to do with establishing February 14th as a feast of St. Valentine. St. Valentine was probably already honored on February 14th, or this started within a few centuries, but there is no record of associating the feast with Pope Gelasius.

5. There is no doubt that the Lupercalia continued till the time of Pope Gelasius (A.D. 494‑96). It is mentioned by Augustine in the latter part of the City of God (written not far from 426), and it is included in the calendar of the Christian Polemius Silvius, of 448/9. When it was finally abolished by the efforts of Gelasius, he addressed to a group of senators an epistle defending the step, which approximates the length of an apologetic treatise. He admits that the old pagan rite had continued under his predecessors, through the days of Alaric, Anthemius, and Ricimer, and had been abolished only in his own time; but he defends the earlier popes by saying that ills could not be healed at once, and that perhaps they had tried to remove this superstition but had failed to win the support of the imperial court.

6. It must be stated that even in the days of Pope Gelasius, Lupercalia was merely a folk custom, a feeble survival of old pagan Rome in what was then a very Christian Rome. In fact, Lupercalia had entirely lapsed decades before, but the customs revived in order to bring some happiness into the gloomy lives of the people of Rome at the time. When Pope Gelasius condemned this revival, he made absolutely no attempt to replace it with anything nor did he compromise in any way with pagan customs. He merely threatened with excommunication anyone who celebrated the pagan customs.

7. The first time we encounter an association between St. Valentine and love is in Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement of Foules from the late 14th century. He associated Valentine's Day with the spring mating season of birds. This association immediately gained popularity, striking the literary and poetic imagination in places like England and France. Before Chaucer, St. Valentine was associated with healing sick and handicapped children, but these stories did not inspire the poetic imagination. Chaucer was likely aware that the head of St. Valentine was venerated in the English capital of Winchester, and though the name was not popular in England it was considered beautiful and aristocratic. Valentine's Day therefore began to emerge simply because it coincided with events in nature and the beginning of farming on his feast day (February 14th at that time being equivalent to the weather of late February in modern times) because the weather began to warm.

8. In his 1882 article "St. Valentine's Day," John W. Hales correctly pointed out that the Lupercalia never involved the pairing of lovers or a lottery. The first suggestion of a lottery for lovers on Valentine's Day occurs in the 15th century in the poems of Lydgate and Charles d'Orleans. The only known attempt to suppress the practice and substitute the names of lovers with those of saints was St. Francis de Sales early in his career as bishop at Annecy in 1603. Butler's ideas were prompted, in all probability, by a confused knowledge of the date of this isolated event; a less charitable explanation would attribute his remarks to wishful or pious fantasy.

Much more can be said, but the academic studies on this subject mentioned above can satisfy those with a keen interest in the details. What we do find is that there are still modern scholars and hundreds of internet articles who subscribe to the false beliefs about Valentine's Day that have been thoroughly refuted since at least the 1980's. The problem is that when people write about a subject, they repeat rumors and myths without checking the facts. Checking the facts requires research, and research takes time because you have to base your findings on original sources. Fortunately for us, this research has been done by accomplished scholars, and from now on there should be no excuse for lazy writers in associating Valentine's Day with myths and false information.