In the third grade, Tiffany didn’t give me a Valentine’s Day card, and that’s when I decided I didn’t like Valentine’s Day. Even now, as a happily married man, Valentine’s Day simply fills me with a sense of dread that I’m going to forget it, not do it right, or not have time to plan something out. It isn’t that I don’t love my wife or don’t want to honor her; it’s that the whole holiday feels like Cupid’s tax on couples to prop up a “romance” cabal of card makers, florists, restaurant owners, and chocolatiers. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, and yes, I hear that “amen” from my single brothers and sisters in the back.
Where Did Valentine’s Day Come From?
To justify my rejection of this holiday, I spent some time researching it. Where did Valentine’s Day even come from, and why do we do it? The answers, shockingly enough, made me fall in love again.
Apparently, it started with the Romans, who celebrated a fertility festival called Lupercalia. I won’t regurgitate the details of what happened there, but I’m sure you can only imagine. This “festival” made a drunken sport of women for several days in early February without consequence. Like most Roman holidays, Lupercalia was hedonistic, oppressive, and dehumanizing.
This went on for a long time. Then, in the third century, Emperor Claudius II executed a Christian man named Valentine, likely a priest, around the time of Lupercalia. Why he was executed is a subject of mystery. Some traditions say he was simply martyred for his faith. Others declare that he defied the emperor’s orders and performed weddings to help men avoid service in the Roman army. Some even say that Valentine wrote a note to his own jailer’s daughter, signed, “from your Valentine,” after befriending and healing her of blindness before his execution.
A Christian Alternative
We don’t really know for sure what happened, but soon afterward Christians began celebrating “St. Valentine’s Day” as an alternative to Lupercalia. By the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I combined the two holidays in an attempt to stop the evil practices that had long characterized Lupercalia. Valentine’s Day was romanticized over the years, especially by Shakespeare and Chaucer in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Eventually, writing cards to loved ones became a common practice.
Valentine’s Day was nominally observed in the western world until 1913, when a small company in Kansas City called Hallmark began printing valentine cards, and the rest, they say, is history.
All of this reminded me of something important, and something worth celebrating this Valentine’s Day, married, single, or somewhere in between. Despite what it has become today (and it’s fine if you like it), this holiday is actually a powerful statement. It’s a marker, not of the power of romantic love to bring happiness, but of divine love to bring transformation. It’s a reminder that the laying down of our lives as Christians, like St. Valentine, can change the most heinous human activities into celebrations of sacrificial love. We can trade beauty for ashes and a garland of praise for despair, as Isaiah taught us. St. Valentine’s love through death points to a love that surpasses all human loves, that no human power can ever stop.
So however you celebrate this February 14 (and good luck getting a reservation), remember our dear friend Valentine, who changed an empire by pointing to a divine romance.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you who are deeply loved by God.