10 Christian Holidays and Beliefs Steeped in Pagan Traditions

A bust containing relics of St. Valentine, in Poland. Wikimedia

Valentine’s Day

February 14 is commemorated as Valentine’s Day, or St. Valentine’s Day in the calendar of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, although in the Roman Catholic Church it was relegated to local status in Calendar of Saints, removed as a feast day, “since, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.” Though there were several early Christian martyrs named Valentinus or Valentine, little is known of any of them beyond legend. In 496 CE, Pope Galesius added Valentine of Rome to the Calendar of Saints, with a Feast Day of February 14, citing his martyrdom in Rome in 269 CE.

February 14 coincided with the Roman celebration of the Lupercalia, which took place February 13-15, and was officially condemned by the same Pope Galesius. Lupercalia was as old, or older, as Rome itself, with links to Ancient Greeks, who celebrated the god Pan. The Romans worshiped a similar god named Lupercus. Both civilizations used symbols for gods based on wolves. Lupercalia as a festival was limited to Rome, and rituals connected with the festival used the Lupercal, the cave where Romulus and Remus were nursed by a she-wolf name Lupa, the Palatine Hill, and the Forum, sites associated with Rome’s founding.

The rituals of Lupercalia included the slaying of sacrificial dogs and goats, the anointing of designated celebrants with the blood of the sacrifice, and then the manufacturing of crude thongs from the skin on the animals. Following a sacrificial meal the thongs were donned, and celebrants, clad only in the thongs, ran around a circle which included Palatine Hill and the Forum, before returning to the Lupercal cave. Those they encountered during their run were slapped with the ends of the thongs, believing that this would lead to fertility, or in the case of women already pregnant, successful birth. When Pope Gelasius tried to end the festival, the Senate opposed him.

Gelasius wrote that the festival was attended by “vile rabble” but in the face of opposition from the Senate he could not outright ban it. The creation of a feast day to an early Christian (and Roman) martyr was a means of limiting the Lupercalia. There was nothing to connect the Roman Valentine with romantic love at the time, and in medieval Europe the feast was connected more with the coming of spring than with lovers. That changed in the England of Geoffrey Chaucer, with the emergence of courtly manners among the gentry. Legends of Valentine began to be merged with the fertility and romantic aspects of the Roman festival.

Saint Valentine, or the several different legends of men named Valentine, had nothing in his or their lifetimes to connect them to the holiday as it is celebrated today. Even their existence is murky. On the other hand the records of the fertility festival of the Lupercalia in Rome are recorded even before the First Republic, and were commented on by Plutarch, Tertullian, and other ancient writers. Whether the establishment of a feast for a martyr of which little is known was an attempt to subvert a pagan ritual or to replace it is a matter of conjecture, but it today has more to do with romantic relationships than a martyr of the church.