The pagan roots of Valentine's Day (2024)

Every year on February 14, the world marks Valentine’s Day. Millions send messages and gifts of love to the people most important in their lives.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the fourteenth has its roots in the Christian faith, with the day seemingly named after Saint Valentine, a priest who lived during the third century AD. However, many historians believe the day originated from the Roman pagan festival of fertility called Lupercalia, an event filled with animal sacrifice, random coupling and the whipping of women; not quite the romantic chocolate and roses day that we celebrate today.

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Lupercalia

Lupercalia was a major festival on the Roman calendar and was commemorated every year on February 15. It was held in honour of the gods Faunus and Lupercus, the gods of agriculture and fertility. It also honoured the mythological founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.

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In the morning the priests of Lupercus, known as Luperci, gathered at Lupercal cave, the place where Romulus and Remus were said to have been cared for as babies by a she-wolf. The cave lay at the foot of the Palantine Hill, the spot at which the brothers were believed to have founded Rome.

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In a representation of fertility and because Lupercus was a god of shepherds, two males goats were sacrificed in the cave. This was followed by the sacrifice of a dog to represent purification and because dogs often guard the flocks. Blood taken from the sacrificial knife was then smeared across the foreheads of two naked Luperci. The knife was then wiped clean with a piece of milk-soaked wool. Historians have suggested this ritual is the reason why Valentine’s Day is associated with the colours red and white; red represents the blood from the sacrifice whilst white represents the milk on the wool that wipes the knife clean, signifying new life.

The pagan roots of Valentine's Day (4)

Feasting followed this ritual and after stomachs were full the Luperci cut strips from the sacrificed goats called ‘thongs’ and dipped them in the sacrificial blood. The Luperci then ran naked through the streets of Rome and whipped any woman within striking distance. Many welcomed the lashings, often revealing bare skin for the thongs to strike. The Romans believed that the thongs would make childless women more fertile whilst blessing pregnant women with the gift of an easy birth.

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Another custom during Lupercalia was the pairing of young Roman boys and girls. At some point during the festival, the names of young girls were written on bits of paper and slipped into a jar. Every young man would then pull out a girl’s name from the jar; the pair would then be coupled together for the duration of Lupercalia. Many stayed together until the following year’s festival, some even fell in love and married.

As Christianity swept across the globe, many pagan traditions were absorbed and adapted into the Christian faith. ‘Lupercalia was clearly a very popular thing, even in an environment where the [ancient] Christians are trying to close it down,’ Noel Lenski, Professor of Classics and History at Yale said in an interview with NPR. ‘So there's reason to think that the Christians might instead have said, OK, we'll just call this a Christian festival.’

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Saint Valentine

In the fifth century AD, Pope Gelasius I banned Lupercalia and in 496 AD the Catholic Church declared February 14 a day to feast and celebrate the life of the martyred Saint Valentine, said to have been executed on 14 February 269 AD.

With over 10,800 saints and multiple Valentine’s, it’s not officially known whether the stories about Saint Valentine were about one man or multiple men merged together. The most popular belief states he was a priest in the Roman Empire during the third century AD, executed under the command of Claudius II for conducting marriages in secret after the Emperor had outlawed them.

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The story goes that whilst awaiting his fate in prison he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. After his sentence finally came through, Valentine supposedly left a farewell note to the young lady and signed it ‘from your Valentine’.

He then exited the jail and walked towards the most unromantic of ends - death by beating and decapitation.

Whilst we may never know the full truth about Saint Valentine’s origins, the stories about him all emphasise his attributes as a heroic and potentially romantic figure. ‘It may be a convenient explanation for a Christian version of what happened at Lupercalia,’ Lenski states.

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Geoffrey Chaucer

However, the direct association of February 14 with overt romanticism and declarations of love doesn’t seem to have started until over a thousand years later during the Middle Ages. The famed fourteenth-century English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, is often credited as the man who made the link. At that time it was believed that European birds began to pair up in mid-February, specifically around the fourteenth.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make,’ Chaucer wrote in his poem ‘Parlement of Foules’, making one of the earliest references about St. Valentine’s Day being a day for those in love.

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Other poets followed his lead, including Shakespeare. The romantics retold history, converting the day into one about devotion, love and courtship. From then on it seems that budding lovers began to send romantic notes to their sweethearts on the Valentine’s Day.

Industrialisation during the eighteenth century made things even easier for smitten couples with the mass-production of illustrated romantic cards. The day’s pagan roots were still very much on display with images of Cupid, the Roman god of desire and love, often adorning the cards. From there the day gradually grew into the billion-pound industry that it is today.

The pagan roots of Valentine's Day (2024)

FAQs

What is the pagan origin of Valentines day? ›

However, many historians believe the day originated from the Roman pagan festival of fertility called Lupercalia, an event filled with animal sacrifice, random coupling and the whipping of women; not quite the romantic chocolate and roses day that we celebrate today.

What is the true origin of Valentines day? ›

Valentine's Day did not come to be celebrated as a day of romance until about the 14th century. Although there were several Christian martyrs named Valentine, the day may have taken its name from a priest who was martyred about 270 ce by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus.

What does the Bible say about celebrating Valentines day? ›

1 John 4:7-12. Dear friends: let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

What is the dark history behind Valentines day? ›

One Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome who defied Emperor Claudius II after the ruler outlawed marriage for young men. St. Valentine would perform marriages in secret for young lovers, ultimately leading to his death.

Are Christians allowed to celebrate Valentines day? ›

If that works for you, do it. But the biblical pattern teaches us that romantic love between husband and wife should be on display often and much. It isn't that celebrating Valentine's Day is too much; it is too little and weak. Christians, live your married years so that you don't need Valentine's Day.

What is the spiritual meaning of Valentines day? ›

While the holiday has undergone secularization over time, its origins in Christian martyrdom and acts of love align with broader spiritual themes of compassion, selflessness, and devotion. For some, Valentine's Day serves as a reminder of the importance of love in both human relationships and spiritual practice.

What is the sad story behind Valentine's day? ›

In another story, St. Valentine wrote the first “Valentine” greeting to a young girl he tutored and fell in love with while he was imprisoned for the crime of officiating soldiers' weddings. According to The History Channel, before dying, he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” which is often used today.

What is the logic behind Valentine's day? ›

While imprisoned, Valentine cared for his fellow prisoners and also his jailor's blind daughter. Legend has it that Valentine cured the girl's blindness and that his final act before being executed was to write her a love message signed 'from your Valentine'. Valentine was executed on 14 February in the year 270.

What happens on Lupercalia? ›

The Lupercalia festival took place on February 15 every year in Palatine Hill at the Lupercal cave. The Lupercalia festival began with an animal sacrifice, followed by the Feast of Lupercal. After the Lupercal feast, priests ran from Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum, whipping people with strips of animal hide.

What does Valentine's Day have to do with Jesus? ›

St. Valentine of Terni lived and died for and in Christ and in His Sacred Heart. Of all the Valentine symbols from medieval to modern day Valentine traditions, “the heart” —Jesus's Heart — is the most loving and pure, a heart burning with an incomparable love for each of us.

Where is Valentine found in the Bible? ›

Since the origin of Valentine's Day as a romantic holiday only dates back to the 14th century, the Bible doesn't have any specific messages about the day—but it does have a lot to say on the subject of love.

What is the story of Valentine in Christianity? ›

In fact, we know of about a dozen early Christians who bore this name. Our Saint Valentine was an Italian bishop who was martyred on February 14, 269, after a trial before the Roman emperor Claudius Gothicus (reign 268–270).

Is Valentine's Day a pagan holiday? ›

Some scholars have suggested that Valentine's Day has its roots in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. Celebrated on February 15, Lupercalia was a bloody and even brutal affair in which animals would be sacrificed in the Lupercal cave at the base of Palatine Hill in Rome.

What is the true story of Valentine's Day? ›

Turns out, it was a pretty common name during Late Antiquity. As far as anyone can tell, the Saint Valentine of Valentine's Day was one of two guys preaching the good word in Rome in the third century. One of these two was martyred on February 14th 269, thus giving us the date for his eponymous day.

What is the hidden truth about Valentine's Day? ›

The festival was meant to encourage a woman's fertility and pay homage to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as Romulus and Remus, the Roman founders. It began with the sacrifice of a goat (representing fertility) and a dog (representing purification).

What is the origin of Valentine's day biblical? ›

The "Feast" (Latin: "in natali", lit.: on the birthday) of Saint Valentine originated in Christendom and has been marked by the Western Church of Christendom in honour of one of the Christian martyrs named Valentine, as recorded in the 8th-century Gelasian Sacramentary.

What is the pagan meaning of Lupercalia? ›

Lupercalia, also known as Lupercal, was a pastoral festival of Ancient Rome observed annually on February 15 to purify the city, promoting health and fertility. Lupercalia was also known as dies Februatus, after the purification instruments called februa, the basis for the month named Februarius. Lupercalia.

What is the true story of Saint Valentine? ›

Alongside a woodcut portrait of Valentine, the text states that he was a Roman priest of exceptional learning who converted the daughter of Asterius and forty-nine others to Christianity before being martyred during the reign of Claudius Gothicus. There are many other legends behind Saint Valentine.

How did Cupid become a common symbol of Valentine's day? ›

Cupid was a fanciful way of representing longing. When 19th century Valentine's Day card makers were looking for ideas to decorate their cards, Renaissance Cupids were an obvious choice. Not only was he a well-known symbol of love, his appearance as a naked flying baby was both cute and inoffensive.

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