Valentine's Day

The Arde Lucus festival at Lugo in 2015

Luis Diaz Devesa / Moment / Getty Images

When Valentine's Day looms on the horizon, many people start thinking about love. Did you know that the modern Valentine's Day, although named for a martyred saint, actually has its roots in an early Pagan custom? Let's take a look at how Valentine's Day evolved from a Roman festival into the marketing behemoth that it is today.

Did You Know?

  • The festival of Valentine's Day may have evolved from a Roman love lottery, held around the time of the Lupercalia.
  • The holiday got an overhaul as Christianity took hold, and was renamed for Saint Valentine.
  • Around 500 c.e., Pope Gelasius decided that a lottery of saints was more pious than selecting potential love partners out of a jar.

Lupercalia's Love Lottery

Drawing of the Lupercalia pastoral festival

February is a great time of year to be in the greeting-card or chocolate-heart industry. This month has long been associated with love and romance, going back to the days of early Rome. Back then, February was the month in which people celebrated Lupercalia, a festival honoring the birth of Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of the city. As Lupercalia evolved and time went on, it morphed into a festival honoring fertility and the coming of spring.

According to legend, young women would place their names in an urn. Eligible men would draw a name and the couple would pair off for the rest of the festival, and sometimes even longer. As Christianity progressed into Rome, the practice was decried as Pagan and immoral, and done away with by Pope Gelasius around 500 C.E. Recently there's been some scholarly debate about the existence of the Lupercalia lottery–and some people believe it may not have existed at all–but it's still a legend that brings to mind ancient matchmaking rituals perfect for this time of year!

A More Spiritual Celebration

Around the same time that the love lottery was being eliminated, Gelasius had a brilliant idea. Why not replace the lottery with something a bit more spiritual? He changed the love lottery to a lottery of the Saints; instead of pulling a pretty girl's name from the urn, young men pulled the name of a saint. The challenge for these bachelors was to try to be more saint-like in the coming year, studying and learning about the messages of their individual saint.

Who Was Valentine, Anyway?

The martyrdom of St. Valentine
Fototeca Storica Nazionale / Contributor / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

While he was trying to convince Rome's young nobleman to be more saintly, Pope Gelasius also declared St. Valentine (more on him in just a bit) the patron saint of lovers, and his day was to be held every year on February 14. There is some question about who St. Valentine actually was; he may have been a priest during the reign of the Emperor Claudius.

The legend is that the young priest, Valentine, disobeyed Claudius by performing wedding ceremonies for young men, when the Emperor preferred to see them roped into military service rather than marriage. While imprisoned, Valentine fell in love with a young girl who visited him, perhaps the daughter of the jailer. Before he was executed, he allegedly sent her a letter, signed, From your Valentine. No one knows if this story is true, but it certainly makes St. Valentine a romantic and tragic hero.

The Christian church had a hard time maintaining some of these traditions, and for a while St. Valentine's Day disappeared off the radar, but during medieval times the lover's lottery regained popularity. Chivalrous young men paired off with ladies, and wore the names of their lover on their sleeves for a year. In fact, some scholars blame poets like Chaucer and Shakespeare for the evolution of Valentine's Day into today's celebration of love and romance. In a 2002 interview, Gettysburg College professor Steve Anderson said that it wasn't really a big deal until Geoffrey Chaucer penned The Parliament of Fowls, in which all of the birds on earth get together on Valentine's Day to pair up with their mates for life.

"[Gelasius] hoped that early Christians would celebrate their romantic traditions a day early and dedicate them to the saint rather than to the Roman love goddess Juno... the feast day stuck, but the romantic holiday didn't... Unlike Pope Gelasius's feast day, Chaucer's 'lovebirds' took off."

Modern Valentine's Day

Around the end of the 18th century, Valentine's Day cards began to appear. Small pamphlets were published, with sentimental poems that young men could copy and send to the object of their affections. Eventually, printing houses learned there was a profit to be made in pre-made cards, complete with romantic pictures and love-themed verse. The first American Valentine cards were created by Esther Howland in the 1870s, according to Victorian Treasury. Other than Christmas, more cards are exchanged at Valentine's Day than any other time of the year.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Valentine's Day." Learn Religions, Sep. 1, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, September 1). Valentine's Day. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Valentine's Day." Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).