What are the first images that cross your mind when you think of Valentine’s Day? Do you see a bishop? An early Christian martyr nobly laying down his life as a witness to Christ? Or, is your mind filled with pictures of hearts and flowers, with Cupid flying around with bow nocked with love arrows? Maybe you just winced, wondering if you still have time to buy roses and make a dinner invitation to celebrate with your sweetheart!
In our modern culture, many Christians do not associate Valentine’s Day with Christianity. Consider, for example, that the day is popularly known as “Valentine’s Day”, omitting the religious connotation of “saint” and stripping it of its sanctity. Even though most Americans associate St. Patrick’s Day with parades and green beer, they do not yet call the holiday Patrick’s Day.
So, what happened? How did the memorial of a Christian martyr become a day associated with romantic love?
St. Valentine’s Day through the ages
Early history of the celebrations surrounding either St. Valentine or his feast day, February 14, is sketchy. An ancient Roman fertility festival known as “Lupercalia” was observed from February 13–15, and involved cleansing rituals to purify the city of Rome and to promote health and fertility. The Lupercalia festival was abolished by Pope Gelasius I (492–496), but there is no evidence that the Church replaced Lupercalia with celebrations involving St. Valentine.
The first direct link between St. Valentine and romantic love seems to have been from Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for The Canterbury Tales. In honor of the marriage of Richard II and his wife, Anne, Chaucer wrote, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” Even here, the links are shaky, and historians believe Chaucer may have had another St. Valentine in mind.
A look into the modern celebration is more telling of romance and love. Our modern customs got their start at the end of the 18th century when an English printing house released a book of sentimental verse for young men to use to woo the young women they were courting. The idea of ghostwritten, pre-printed romantic poetry being offered as a token of romantic affection quickly became so popular that various English printers created cheap cards with these verses printed on them. The cards were called “valentines” and the modern secular celebration of exchanging valentines on St. Valentine’s Day was born.
Back to the omission of “saint.” While I cannot say for certain, it would not surprise me if the “Saint” is commonly dropped from the modern celebration of February 14 because it is not the world’s intention to honor a Christian martyr. Rather, it is an almost entirely secular day for exchanging printed cards called “valentines.” If so, the valentine referred to in “Valentine’s Day” would refer to the cards and not to the saint of the same name.
As for St. Valentine himself, he is still listed in the Roman Martyrology, and it gets surprising from there. The Church, when it revised the liturgical calendar in 1969, removed St. Valentine from the General Roman Calendar since there is so little known about him that can be historically verified. Churches may still be named for him, and there are prominent churches that exist to this day in his honor, such as the church built for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. His feast may be liturgically celebrated in areas where there is no other liturgical obligation for the same day that takes precedence. (In the United States, we celebrate the memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius on February 14.)
Celebrating February 14
So, is Valentine’s Day a religious holiday? It depends. It can be celebrated as such in some places as a memorial in honor of an ancient Christian martyr named Valentine. We do not know much about him, but we do know the most important thing we could possibly know about him: He died a martyr for Christ. He laid down his life for the sake of the gospel. There is no higher calling than that, and anything else we need to know about him we can ask him in the next life. We are also able to ask his intercession, and that included intercessions for romantic concerns.
There is also the secular celebration of February 14, created by savvy businessmen seeking to play Cyrano for lovestruck gentlemen courting the ladies of their choice with pretty poetry and keepsake printed cards. The exchange of these “valentines” is entirely secular in origin and has nothing to do with St. Valentine, though it doesn’t hurt to send an encouraging or romantic word to a loved one or spouse, respectfully.
There’s a deeper meaning in the holiday as well. We shouldn’t forget the Christian principle that grace builds on nature. The Church looks with favor on the institution of marriage and offers the sacrament of matrimony to assist couples in persevering from starry-eyed first love to time-tested, faithful, lifelong love. If valentine cards and other tokens of affection can assist young couples to marriage and help married couples renew their love for each other each year, the Church has no objection.
Image: The Morning of St. Valentine by John Callcott Horsley (1865)