In the search to find the perfect way to show their affection, most never ponder the true origin of this holiday. Valentine’s Day traces its roots to the ancient Roman pagan feast day Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15 to honor Lupercus, the god of fertility and husbandry. He was believed to be a mighty hunter who protected the Romans and livestock from wolves.
The day before the festival in Lupercus’ honor, Feb. 14, teen-aged girls would write their names on small pieces of paper called billets, and drop them into a container. Adolescent boys would then randomly choose from it the name of a young girl, and the two would become a couple for the day, engaging in erotic games at parties celebrated throughout Rome. For the rest of the year, they would remain sexual partners.
Also, the Luperci (male priests) would run about Rome, clothed in loincloths made from sacrificed goats and smeared in their blood, striking women with februa, thongs made from skins of the sacrificed goats. The Luperci believed the floggings purified women and guaranteed their fertility and ease of childbirth. February derives from februa or “means of purification.” To the Romans, February was also sacred to Juno Februata, the goddess of febris (“fever”) of love, and of women and marriage.
These customs were observed in the Roman Empire for centuries.
In A.D. 494, Pope Gelasius renamed the festival of Juno Februata as the “Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.” The date of its observance was later changed from February 14 to February 2, then changed back to the 14. It is also known as Candlemas, the Presentation of the Lord, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
After Emperor Constantine had made the Roman church’s brand of Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (A.D. 325), church leaders wanted to do away with the pagan festivals. Lupercalia was high on their list, but the Roman citizens thought otherwise.
Powerless to get rid of Lupercalia, Pope Gelasius instead changed it from Feb. 15 to the 14th and called it St. Valentine’s Day.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in early martyrologies under the date of 14 February. One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), and these two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city…Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing is further known.”
Several biographies of different men named Valentine were merged into one official “St. Valentine.” The name comes from the Latin Valentinus, which derives fromvalens—“to be strong, powerful, mighty.”
The Bible describes a man with a similar title: “And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen. 10:8-9). Nimrod hunted with a bow and arrow.
To the Greeks, from whom the Romans had copied most of their mythology, Lupercus was known as Pan, the god of light. The Phoenicians worshipped the same deity as Baal, the sun god. Baal was one of many names or titles for Nimrod, a mighty hunter, especially of wolves. He was also the founder and first lord of Babel (Gen. 10:10-12). Defying God, Nimrod was the originator of the Babylonian Mystery Religion, whose mythologies have been copied by the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans and a multitude of other ancient peoples. Under different names or titles—Pan, Lupercus, Saturn, Osiris—Nimrod is the strong man and hunter-warrior god of the ancients.
But what does this have to do with us today? Why should we be concerned with what happened in the past?
Here is what God, the Creator, tells humanity regarding the origin of worldly holidays and traditions: “Learn not the way of the heathen…for the customs of the people are vain” (Jer. 10:2-3). Those who engage in idolatrous worship, God calls heathen.
Throughout the Bible, God describes “heathens” as those who worship things that He had created (animals, the sun, the moon, stars, trees, etc.), or man-made idols, or anything but the one true God. He calls such people and their practices “pagan.”
Practicing pagan traditions and customs is serious in God’s eyes. When He delivered the 12 tribes of Israel from Egypt, He warned, “After the doing of the land of Egypt, wherein you dwelt, shall you not do: and after the doing of the land of Canaan, where I bring you, shall you not do: neither shall you walk in their ordinances” (Lev. 18:3).
God also commanded the Israelites not to practice the idolatrous customs of the nations nearby: “Therefore shall you keep My ordinance, that you commit not any one of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, and that you defile not yourselves therein: I am the Lord your God” (vs. 30).
Clearly, God does not condone such pagan customs—but is it possible to “whitewash” or “Christianize” pagan practices and make them clean? Is it okay to practice these as long as you “worship God”?
The church at Rome attempted this. Regarding Valentine’s Day, instead of putting the names of girls into a box, both boys and girls drew the names of “saints.” It was then each child’s duty to emulate the life of the saint he or she had drawn. This was Rome’s vain attempt to Christianize a pagan observance—even though God never gave man the power or authority to do this. Though the church had banned the sexual lottery, young men continued practicing a much toned-down version, sending women whom they desired handwritten romantic messages containing St. Valentine’s name.
Today, Lupercalia is alive and well, but with a different name: Valentine’s Day. Our article “The Truth Behind St. Valentine’s Day” offers greater historical detail and explains how God views this and other worldly holidays.
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