February 4, 2014
Valentine’s Day: Once Pagan, Now Christian
Today’s heightened sensitivity to the evil of sexual harassment is a far cry from the distinctly pagan origins of St. Valentine’s Day. Many believe that our celebration of love and friendship on February 14 is actually the raucous Roman festival
Lupercalia that morphed into a Christian feast. This may well have been Rome’s longest-lasting pagan festival.
Every year, a full month before the Ides of March (i.e. anywhere from February 13-15), the Romans would celebrate the
Lupercalia. It was a festival dedicated to Faunus, the god of fertility for crops and animals. Faunus was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan. And, in honoring him, devotees heartily engaged in much merrymaking.
As part of the celebration of the
Lupercalia, the pagan priests would make bands from the skin of the goats offered in sacrifice, dip them in the blood of the victims and then give them to two young men. These youths would then roam the streets and alleys around the Palatine hill, playfully slapping young women with these strips of goat skin to render them fertile. During the run, young women eagerly greeted the opportunity to be treated in this way. They would even bare their flesh in hopes of greater fertility.
The celebration of the
Lupercalia began with the founding of Rome. Even after Constantine legalized Christianity, this pagan festival continued to be immensely popular and enthusiastically enjoyed. It lasted until 496 A.D., when Pope Gelasius decided to supplant it by marking February 14
th as a celebration in honor of St. Valentine.
According to tradition, Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome in the 3
rd century. He was martyred for ministering to Christians who were being persecuted. He is said to have defied the emperor by secretly marrying soldiers who were forbidden to marry.
Pope Gelasius made February 14
th St. Valentine’s Day because he wanted Christians to value and respect the dignity of marriage. From her very beginning, the Church has understood human love within marriage as a sacred commitment and as a blessing for society. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family” (
Gaudium et Spes, 47). From the very beginning, the Church has also understood that any trivialization of love and marriage leads to the undermining of society itself.
Recent research demonstrates what happens when marriage is no longer accepted or lived out as a permanent union of a man and a woman. The break-up of a husband and wife negatively impacts each spouse and the children as well. Divorced spouses experience more depression, isolation, loneliness and lower self-esteem than spouses who remain in healthy marriages. Even the experience of a new romantic relationship may not diminish but intensify these feelings. Happily married adults, however, report fewer symptoms of depression.
Children who grow up in families that are torn apart by divorce suffer emotional stress and, at times, physical illness. They are less likely to do well in their studies and attend college. Seventy-eight percent of children whose parents remain in a stable marriage graduate from high school by the age of 20. But, only 60 percent of children without two parents living together graduate in the same amount of time.
Today, many turn to cohabitation as an alternate to committed marriage. But, cohabitation merely mimics marriage. Those who cohabitate may truly love one another. But, lacking in commitment, their love is not permanent. In fact, cohabitating relationships have nowhere near the success rate of marriages. And, in cases where couples move from cohabitation to marriage, they have a 46% greater risk of divorce than couples who do not live together before marriage. Cohabitation does not deliver the same positive benefits to the spouses or the children as marriage does.
God gave marriage as a gift to Adam and Eve. And it was the one blessing not forfeited by the flood. Marriage benefits the husband and wife, the children and society as well. It strengthens the bond of love between spouses. It establishes a proper environment for children. A healthy family life is the school of fidelity and sacrifice, essential for any society to endure.
The week of February 7-14 is National Marriage Week; and, Sunday, February 9
th is World Marriage Sunday. With the secular world, we celebrate the gift of love and friendship on Valentine’s Day. But, as people of faith, we acknowledge that it is God who blesses us with the love of friends and family and we celebrate God’s gift of marriage as a permanent union of a man and a woman open to life. We recognize the challenges and struggles that all families face. And, through the intercession of St. Valentine, we ask God to strengthen our faith in his plan for creation and empower us by his grace to live the gift of love according to his will.