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It began on the eve of February 14th, but under a different name. It was a "love feast," based—not on any Christian principle of true love—but on free sex. The Romans were well noted for their sexual immorality on their festive occasions, especially so On this particular night in February. It was a religious festival dedicated to the goddess of love. The Romans called it their Lupercalia.

The superstitions associated with this Roman love festival were numerous. The priests, the Luperci, would clothe themselves with strips .of skin from sacrificed goats and run through the streets in Rome. "They bore whips in their hands, which were made of strips of goatskin. With these, they struck the women who got in their way who were wanting to escape from the reproach of barrenness. The thongs bore the name of februai, a word connected. . . with purificatory ritual" (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, Vol. XII, p.812).

Being one's valentine on this day was indulged in by all. It was about the middle of the month that the names, of willing young ladies, were put in a box and well shaken up. Then each young man would draw out a name at random. The girl thus won was to remain his companion while the gaieties lasted (The English Festivals, Whistler, P.90).

This festival was dedicated to the goddess Venus and the feast was "characterized in the later Roman period by wanton raillery and unkindled freedom..." (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, Vol. ffi, p. 226). In Roman mythology, this goddess of sexual immorality had sons, called "Cupids," who attended her on this festival. They were believed to cause love and also make it cease—a sort of love potion (Roman Antiquities, Alexander Adam; p. 279). This was done by shooting arrows at the hearts of the victims. Cupid was generally represented as a winged boy, with bow and arrow, often shooting at a young man's or a young woman's heart. These cupids were naked, winged, blinded and were armed with a bow, arrows and a torch. Any resemblance to the little nude boys on Valentine's Day cards? The cupids are often used as decorative theaters, on cards and on signs at inns, etc.

Who was this Cupid? In later Roman times, he was only one of many Roman gods. The Greeks knew him as Eros. But his history goes farther back than Greek or Roman times. In Egypt, "this infant divinity was frequently represented with a heart, or the heart-shaped fruit of the Persea, in one of his hands" (The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop, p. 189). "Thus the boy-god came to be regarded as .their 'god of the heart,' in other words, as Cupid, the god of love" (ibid).

First "Christian" Valentine

Seeing that the Roman love feast of Lupercalia was outright pagan, why then did the Christian-professing church accept and keep such a day, but of course, under a different name? Whatever possessed the leaders of the church to approve this heathen fertility feast and keep it as a "Christian" festival under the name of St. Valentine's Day?

It all began at the time of Constantine the Great in the fourth century. It was this emperor who, it will be remembered, accepted. Orthodox Christianity. No longer considering himself a pagan, Constantine was encouraged to break with this pagan past; and one of several heathen feasts that had to go was the Lupercalia. But this produced problems.
It was one thing for the Christianized emperor to forego what the church considered a purely pagan festival. But to get the Roman populace at large to cease observing this love feast was another matter. In fact, it proved impossible. The Roman populace would not hear of it.

It was hoped by church circles that the pagan populace would, in due time, be willing to give up this festival; but this proved to be a false hope.

The Christian-professing church then decided that the only way this matter could be resolved was to let the great masses of the empire (now members of the church) keep the Lupercalia feast, but by another name and for another purpose.
It was in the year A.D. 496 that Pope Gelasius I "Christianized" the festival and renamed it "St. Valentine Day. "Here is why.

Church's Main Interest

Once the Roman emperor became Christian, the Orthodox Church grew in numbers. Since her main concern was to convert the pagan populace within the empire as quickly as possible, she felt justified in making it easy on them. Church leaders "clearly perceived that if Christianity was to conquer the world, it could do so only by relaxing the too-rigid principles of its Founder" (Studies in the History of Oriental Religions, James Frazer, Book II, p. 202).

One way of gaining an ever-increasing influx of members was to blend and incorporate pagan beliefs and practices with Christian ones. 'Thus, at the first promulgation of Christianity to the Gentile nations. . .they could not be persuaded to relinquish many of their superstitions, which, rather than forego altogether, they chose to blend and incorporate with the new faith" (Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, John Brand, p. xi).

Thus, "for almost every pagan ceremony, some Christian rite was introduced" (Claris Calendaria, John Brady, Vol. I, p. 196).
So beginning with A.D. 496, the Roman populace could still come to their love feast (no longer dedicated to Venus, the goddess of love) but to the Virgin Mary. They could still draw lots for their valentines, but with the names of saints written on them. The attention of the populace on each February 1461 was now to be centered on Christian saints instead of pagan deities.

St. Valentine Chosen

The church, in deciding to slightly alter the festival by giving it an acceptable name, went back to the third century. There she came upon a tradition about a certain presbyter who had married couples secretly against the edict of Emperor Claudius II. He was caught and beheaded in A.D. 270. To honor this bishop, it was decided to call the February festival of love and purification after his name—Saint Valentine.

Later, the Protestant churches rejected the Catholic concept of the Virgin Mary and the saints' association with St. Valentine's Day. Instead, the people went back to drawing the name of ordinary young men and women. It became a less religious ceremony—but still retaining all the pagan embellishments of the Romans, and then some.

All the pagan trappings were maintained—Cupid was still there, the decorative "hearts" continued to be displayed, lots were still drawn as chance directed and the day was still the original Roman day. It was also believed that birds were said to mate on this day. It was further a widely held tradition that the first person of the opposite sex, one encountered on the morning of St. Valentine's Day was to become the future spouse. And love potions were considered to be very potent on February 14th.  People would let themselves go at parties, often disregarding the inevitable consequences of such revelry.
Both in England and Scotland, St. Valentine's Day was a welcome diversion from the otherwise dull, cold winter season. Referring to a traveler to these areas in the last century, we read, "On the eve of St. Valentine's Day,' he says 'the young folks in England and Scotland, by a very ancient custom, celebrate a little festival. An equal number of maids and bachelors get together; each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up and draw by way of lots.. .Fortune (the name, of yet another pagan god!) having thus divided the company into so many couples, the valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love"

Taken in part from (Book of Days, Robert Chambers, Vol. I, past 1, p. 255).

- Reposted from Dr J. Royce Thomason February 2000