I always assumed that Valentine’s Day was literally started by Hallmark cards, Hershey’s, FTD Flowers, or some other business that needed to boost its bottom line to sell more product. Hey, here’s an idea, let’s create a holiday where everyone is obligated to buy cards, candy and flowers once a year.
There are even entire industries, with their own infomercials that exist solely surrounding Valentine’s Day. My favorite being the Big Hunk of Love at Vermont Teddy Bear. Every year I threaten Melinda that I made the call, and one is on the way. I mean really, who doesn’t dream of having a six foot tall bear hanging around the house.
But it turns out I was wrong. Valentine’s Day actually has a uniquely Christian origin. With that said, my guess is that you have no idea what part of Christian history it actually links to. From a commentary, written by Chuck Colson way back in 1999, here’s the story.
Early church records are sketchy, but it’s believed several men named Valentine were martyred in the third century A.D. This was during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II, a ruler known for his brutal persecution of Christians.
One of these Valentines was a priest who secretly married couples against the wishes of Claudius, who believed that unmarried men made better soldiers. Two other Valentines—a priest and a bishop—were beheaded by Claudius late in the third century.
Historians are not certain which Valentine it was we celebrate on February 14. But they are certain why the church chose that day. You see, in ancient Rome, February 14 was the eve of a pagan festival called Lupercalia. During this festival, the Romans worshiped Februa, a goddess of marriage, childbirth, and sexuality.
Brian Bates, a professor at the University of Sussex, is an expert on how we celebrate holidays. Bates writes that during Lupercalia, “Young men and women drew lots for sexual partners in preparation for a day of sanctioned license the following day.”
As Christianity spread throughout the ancient world, the church began replacing pagan festivals with holy days. In an effort to control the lewder aspects of the Lupercalian festival, the church fathers replaced this pagan holiday with the feast of Saint Valentine, in honor of one of the martyred Christians. Instead of drawing the names of sexual partners out of a box, young men were encouraged to pick the names of saints—and then spend the following year emulating the saint whose name they drew.
So how about that? Valentine’s Day actually links back to the early Christian Saints, and how their martyrdom dramatically illustrates their love of God. Somehow, a Hershey’s Kiss, and a big Teddy Bear no longer seems appropriate.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” 1 John 4:7, 9