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

About 2,000 people were without power in the Agassiz-Harrison area after a wire dropped on Morrow Road in Agassiz. (Contributed graphic/BC Hydro)
Power restored after downed line near Agassiz Christian School

Crews restored power after about four hours

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of Oct. 18

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

More and more electric cars are on the road, but one Chevy Bolt owner was shocked to see how much his BC Hydro bill skyrocketed once he started charging the vehicle. (Black Press file photo)
Rosedale man sees significant spike in BC Hydro bill after purchasing electrical vehicle

An increase should be expected, but Brian Chwiendacz experienced a 200-plus per cent hike

File Photo
Halloween and history collide in Agassiz this month

The spooky displays at the museum are on now until Halloween

Chilliwack-Kent 2020 provincial election candidates, clockwise from bottom left, Kelli Paddon (NDP), Eli Gagne (Libertarian), Jeff Hammersmark (Green), Jason Lum (Independent), and Laurie Throness, who began the campaign as a BC Liberal but left the party on Oct. 15.
Advance voting nears 5,000 in Chilliwack-Kent

More than 380,000 voters have voted in advance across B.C.

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
167 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death recorded as B.C. enters 2nd wave

Three new healthcare outbreaks also announced

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

UBC geoscientists discovered the wreckage of a decades-old crash during an expedition on a mountain near Harrison Lake. (Submitted photo)
Wreckage of decades-old plane crash discovered on mountain near Harrison Lake

A team of Sts’ailes Community School students helped discover the twisted metal embedded in a glacier

Officers with the Lower Mainland Emergency Response Team were at a White Rock home Tuesday (Oct. 20) to assist Vancouver Police Department with execution of a search warrant. (Contributed photo)
ERT, VPD response to White Rock home connected to homicide: police

Search underway in the 15800-block of Prospect Crescent

The official search to locate Jordan Naterer was suspended Saturday Oct. 17. Photo courtesy of VPD.
‘I am not leaving without my son,’ says mother of missing Manning Park hiker

Family and friends continue to search for Jordan Naterer, after official efforts suspended

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Bear kills llama on Vancouver Island, prompting concerns over livestock

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students in the classroom. He was one of two fathers who filed a court application in August to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections weren’t in place. That application was dismissed last week. (Contributed photo)
B.C. dad pledges to appeal quashed call for mandatory masks, distancing in schools

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster challenged health, education ministries’ return-to-school plan

Most Read