Valentine's Day: From Pagan to Christian to Cash Registers


    From candy, cards and flowers to the more risque gifts of skimpy boudoir attire and intimate proposals, Valentine's Day has come to bear little resemblance to the holy day set aside for its namesake saint more than 1,500 years ago.
    Indeed, were Valentine to see what has become of his feast day, he might blush with embarrassment, if not fume in righteous indignation.
    Then again, there is a good argument that the secular holiday devoted to love and lust has long since left its religious forbear in the dust. Valentine no longer finds a spot on the Roman Catholic Church's official worship calendar. "There are many more canonized and recognized saints than there are days of the year," said Bishop George Niederauer, spiritual leader of Utah's 200,000 Catholics. "Valentine was on the church's calendar when I was a boy, but he was removed by the Second Vatican Council [1962-65].
    "His place was taken by Cyril and Methodius, brothers who were missionaries to the Slavic countries."
    Perhaps it is all for the best. The origins of St. Valentine's Day have always been a bit murky. Some historians say it was a Christian appropriation of the Romans' Feb. 14 holiday honoring the goddess Juno and its subsequent Feb. 15 Lupercian Festival, a pagan celebration of fertility and courtship.
    A custom associated with the festival called for eligible young men to draw the names of maidens from a jar, precursor of today's Valentine's cards.
    "This is like St. Nicholas," said Martin Marty, director of the Public Religion Project and a professor emeritus of Christian History at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "There's nothing in the Nicholas legend that makes him the gift giver a la Santa Claus, and there is nothing in the Valentine story that connects him with love and letters."
    Indeed, still in dispute is which of at least three martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus associated with the February date is the real saint. Perhaps the strongest candidate, though, is a Valentine believed to have been priest in Rome executed Feb. 14, 269 A.D.
    Tradition says this particular Valentine defied Emperor Claudius II by performing secret marriage ceremonies. Claudius, the story goes, had banned marriages and engagements in Rome because he was having difficulty recruiting soldiers away from their families for his unpopular, bloody wars.
    For answering the call of love instead of obeying his emperor's edicts, Valentine was ordered beaten to death and beheaded. Before he died, however, he purportedly sent a love note to a young girl -- perhaps the daughter of his jailer-- who had visited him in prison. Signed "From your Valentine," this legendary last written communication from the martyred saint became the first of the millions of "Valentines." Or, at least that is the legend.
    The tale is "a hokey tradition," Marty said. "Who believes it?" More likely, the church simply "tried to trump a secular lovers' day" already in existence. The same argument has been advanced to explain the pagan roots of other Christian holiday selections including Christmas and Easter.
    Whatever the origins of the lovers' holiday, Feb. 14 was added to the church calendar as a feast day honoring St. Valentine by Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. By the Middle Ages, Valentine was a favorite in France and England, where folk customs also associated Feb. 14 with birds beginning to pair for spring's nesting.
    Chaucer, in his Parliament of Foules, wrote in archaic Middle English: "For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate."
    In the United States, Valentine's Day eventually joined Christmas and Easter as religious holidays transmuted into buying and gift-giving seasons to keep shopkeepers' cash registers ringing. The first commercial Valentines were introduced in the 1800s. The tainting of yet another religious holiday by commerce does not overly concern Niederauer, at least in the case of Valentine. He points out another February holy day, Candlemas -- commemorating the first appearance of the infant Jesus in the temple and celebrated on Feb. 2 -- has pretty much been forgotten. It is now devoted to the groundhog and its purported ability to predict the length of winter.