Question: Some sources, like Wikipedia, claim there are no links between the Catholic Saint Valentine and Roman fertility practices such as the Lupercalia. Is Valentine's Day a holiday Christians should keep, based on this assertion?
Answer: When researching questions like this one, it is important to examine your sources carefully. For example, if you believe Wikipedia (as of late December 2012), Valentine's Day has no pre-Christian antecedents. However, a closer look at the various sources reveals a different answer.
Many common general references, such as the World Book Encyclopedia, openly acknowledge the connection between Valentine's Day and pre- Christian practice. Notice: "The Romans celebrated their feast of Lupercalia as a lovers' festival for young people... After the spread of Christianity, churchmen tried to give Christian meaning to the pagan festival. In 496, Pope Gelasius changed the Lupercalia festival of February 15 to Saint Valentine's Day February 14. But the sentimental meaning of the old festival has remained to the present time" ("Valentine's Day," Volume 19, pp. 205-206).
What was this Lupercalia festival? During this pagan "lovers' festival," the Romans celebrated the legend of the founding of Rome, in honor of the wolf that was said to have suckled the twins Romulus and Remus. Roman priests of this pagan rite would strike women with goatskin thongs in the hopes that this practice would increase their fertility. Couples would also exchange love tokens to "the first of the opposite sex seen that day" (Herbert Lockyer, All the Holy Days and Holidays).
What of the claim that Valentine's Day was invented solely in honor of the Roman church's Saint Valentinus, said to have been martyred in the third century ad? Lockyer points out that Valentine's Day observance—with gifts commonly given to the objects of people's erotic love—has no meaningful connection to a Roman saint, and far more in common with the ancient Lupercalia.
Some have asserted that Valentine's Day was established as a simple religious observance and only later took on its erotic overtones, perhaps encouraged by poet Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls—sometimes called "the first Valentine's Day poem ever written"—a tale of birds who would pair off with their mates in the late winter and early spring, and for whom Valentine's Day held a special significance. But unless the holiday already had its erotic tone, Chaucer's references and inferences would have made no sense to his readers! Clearly he was writing in the spirit of an already established sense that Valentine's Day was a special day for lovers.
Does it matter that Valentine's Day is a modern continuation of a pagan practice? The Bible is clear on this point. Anciently, God warned against practicing such imitation (Deuteronomy 12:29-31). The Apostle John reinforced this warning when he urged Christians, "keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). Gentile Christians were urged to abstain from "things offered to idols" (Acts 15:29). This clearly referred to meats offered to pagan deities, but also implied that Christians would distance themselves from observing even a holiday "offered to idols."
Jesus Christ Himself observed the national and civic holidays of ancient Israel, even under Roman occupation. He came to the temple in Jerusalem during the celebration of the Feast of Dedication, also known as Hanukkah (John 10:22)—a holiday that God did not ordain. It is not that we must only observe the holidays found in the Bible. But where our observance puts us into conflict with Christian morality, or includes us (directly or by association) in the practice of pagan customs, we should shun such observance—and thus we as Christians should not observe Valentine's Day.
To learn more, request your free copy of our informative booklet, The Holy Days: God's Master Plan.It will help you appreciate the festivals God established for His people, and how they are different from the worldly festivals carried over from pagan religion and appealing to carnal mankind. Order your copy online at TomorrowsWorld.org, or write to the Regional Office nearest you (listed on page 30 of this magazine) to request your free copy.