Origin of St Valentine’s day, should Christians celebrate it?

All the trouble began with Pope Gelasius  in 495.  It was he who declared February 14 St Valentine’s day. To which Valentine did this refer? There are at least three candidates, one from Africa, the other was the Bishop of Interamna, today known as Terni and finally a priest from Rome. Some accounts even mix the three.

So what exactly happened?

Well it would seem that Empreor Claudius had the wicked idea of banning marriages so as to have at his disposal single, able-bodied men that he could send off to war. the times were indeed turbulent for Rome and marriage, in Claudius’s view made men unwilling to go to war.

Well, as the story goes, people came to Valentine for help and he willingly conducted secret marriages to enable couples to marry. Valentine’s activities soon came to the hearing of the powers that be and he was later arrested and suffered martyrdom. He took a stand for the biblical right to marry and paid for it with his life. It is said that he wrote a note to his jailer’s daughter before he died, signing it ‘your Valentine’.

The pagan festival

Where the waters grow muddy is the connection that some draw with the pagan festival of Lupercus, god of fertility, held mid february.  According to some accounts, men would walk naked through the streets with a whip, and use it on willing women who believed it would enable them to conceive a child or put to bed safely, if they were pregnant.

According to other accounts, the priests would sacrifice a goat in a purification ritual and then run through the streets using the skin to touch women seeking fertility. The Pope’s declaration of Saint Valentine’s day mid february would thus ostensibly turn people’s attention away from this pagan festival to a christian saint’s veneration. However, the festival continued. It is not certain that there is any connection between this festival and St Valentine’s day.

Valentine card made by Esther A Howland

So what about the love thing?

The English poet Chaucer is credited as being the first to refer to St Valentine’s day as a day of love. He spoke of a royal engagement taking place on Valentine’s day when every fowl came to choose its mate. Some dispute this, believing he was rather referring to another Valentine day in May as birds were more likely to mate at that time of year. Nevertheless, two centuries later, the association of love with the 14th of February had become deeply entrenched, witnessed by this statement in Hamlet “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.”

Where did the cards and gift giving come from?

The first Valentine day love letter is purported to have been sent by a Frenchman Charles, Duke of Orleans from his prison cell in the Tower of London in 1415 to his wife. However, it was the English who popularised the sending of love notes on Valentine’s day. In the 19th century, with improved printing technology they were later mass-produced and landed in America. One Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, who  ran her father’s stationery shop saw one, and decided to begin producing Valentine day cards. America was conquered. It spread to the rest of the world.

So should Christians celebrate St Valentine’s day?

Valentine was certainly a worthy man, but sainthood is the prerogative of every child of God not special ones. What about the connection with Lupercus? That is by no means a certainty and what matters, in my view, is what it stands for today. There is no biblical reason to celebrate or not celebrate it.

And how you celebrate it, if you choose to do so is a matter of choice. In many countries, it has taken on the connotation of agape love, that is love between friends and family. In fact, Valentine day messages are often sent to friends and not only people with whom one has a romantic relationship.

What you want to avoid is waste, getting caught up in the mercantile tradition. There is no need to go overboard spending money. Love should be demonstrated daily between friends and between couples. Show your loved ones they are special to you everyday and avoid being parted with your money by sharks exploiting the day for financial gain. You also want to avoid putting pressure on your loved ones to spend money unnecessarily because it is Valentine’s day.

Can I suggest that you make Jesus your Valentine? Take extra time to worship and pour your love out on Him. He will honour you for it. Shalom!


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