This painting by Leonhard Beck, dating back to 1510, shows St. Valentine, the namesake of St. Valentine’s Day. (Wikimedia Commons)

Valentine’s Day rooted in Pagan, Roman and Christian traditions

While its namesake is a Christian saint, the day of love has a complex history

The historical roots of Valentine’s Day run deep.

Catholic sources, many of them unreliable, describe the namesake of the occasion as a high-ranking Christian clergy, who administered to persecuted Christians during the later phases of the Roman empire, before its formal adoption of Christianity as state religion on Feb. 27, AD 380.

Before the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the Roman empire had persecuted Christians as heretics, confiscating their wealth and killing thousands, often in ghastly, public displays, be it as live prey for wild animals during grisly gladiatorial games, or as human torches during public and private festivals.

These persecutions peaked during the third century AD and it was during this period that the later saint lived, worked and eventually died at the hands of the Roman Empire, with Catholic sources identifying Feb. 14 in the year AD 269 as Valentine’s purported day of martyrdom.

RELATED: One day to go: Last-second Valentine’s Day ideas

Some two centuries later, with the Roman Empire having crumbled away, but Christianity firmly established, Pope Gelasius I declared Feb. 14 as the Feast of St. Valentine.

Likely drawing on various myths surrounding St. Valentine’s practice as a clandestine match-maker and marriage official, various customs started to emerge in western Europe. On the eve of the Feast, young single people would gather to write the respective names of their single acquaintances on small papers, which would then go into a large pot, from where they would be drawn lottery style subject to two conditions: the number of men and women would be equal and only opposite-sex pairings would be permitted. The names drawn would then become each other’s valentine.

One important figure in the popular rise of St. Valentine was Geoffrey Chaucer, the English Medieval poet and author, who helped to popularize the notion of courtly love and chivalry, itself an attempt to link the Middle Ages with Christian antiquity.

St. Valentine’s Day today appears as far removed from Chaucer, as Chaucer appeared from St. Valentine himself, and the commercialism surrounding St. Valentine’s Day appears stripped off its Christian antecedents. This complaint, it should be said, is not new. In 1880, the Library of Universal Knowledge describes St. Valentine’s Day as a “considerable nuisance” that “has ceased to possess the graceful symbolic meaning it used to have” in complaining about the excessive presence of romance-themed stationery.

This said, scholars have questioned Christianity’s original appropriation of Feb. 14 as a day of romance, linking the day to Roman traditions pre-dating Christianity, with others linking it to then-prevailing naturalistic religions in western Europe. As the Library of Universal Knowledge put it, northwestern Europeans started to associate this time of the year with romance, because it was around this time that birds started to choose their mates. Hence, it would only be natural for humans to do the same.

It is also important to point out that St. Valentine is the patron saint of people with epilepsy.


Like us on Facebook and follow @wolfgang_depner

wolfgang.depner@peninsulanewsreview.com

Holidays and Seasonal Events

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

West Kootenay SPCA hopes you’ll have a heart for Cupid

Cat who tangled with a bobcat seeking a permanent home

New ‘hub’ model takes regional approach to doctor recruitment in West Kootenay

Kootenay-Boundary a provincial leader in effectively attracting doctors to work here

Painting Ourselves Visible group to create mural

A new partnership between Kootenay Gallery of Art and Castlegar Pride

Castlegar Skating Club prepares for regional championships

Watch local skaters on March 11 at 4:30 p.m.

Castlegar council develops policy for question period

Questions must pertain to current agenda items and issues or items of interest to the general public

HIGHLIGHTS: Day one and two at the 2020 BC Winter Games

Athletes had sunny – but cold – weather to work with in Fort St. John

Tyler Toffoli scores twice, Canucks crush Bruins 9-3

Stecher, Miller each add three points for Vancouver

Zamboni driver, 42, earns NHL win over Maple Leafs

Emergency goalie called into action for Carolina Hurricanes

Governor general says multiple solutions needed for ‘complicated’ overdose issue

Julie Payette met at a fire hall with firefighters and police officers as well as politicians and health experts

Landlord ordered to pay $11K after harassing B.C. mom to move days after giving birth

Germaine Valdez was pressured to move just a few days after giving birth by C-section to her child

Heart attacks strike B.C. husband and wife just over one year apart

Courtenay couple share personal stories to bring awareness to heart month

‘Nothing surprises us anymore:’ U.S. border officials find brain in package

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found the brain packed in a glass mason jar in a Canada Post shipment

Adapting to love along the Columbia River

One man starts a GoFundme to help his partner with health costs caused on the trip where they met

B.C., Ottawa sign sweeping 30-year deal for northern caribou habitat

West Moberly, Saulteau co-manage new protection on two million acres

Most Read