Valentine’s Day and the takeover of pagan festivals by the Church

The celebration of Valentine’s Day on February 14 provides us with an opportunity to think about the symbolism of the pagan festivals that were taken over by the Church.

Today, Valentine’s Day is the symbol of lovers, thus, indirectly, the symbol of fertility. According to tradition, Roman Emperor Claudius the Cruel had banned marriages amongst young people on the grounds that married young men were reluctant to enlist in the Roman army. Valentine, a Catholic priest, disobeyed the ban and continued to perform marriages amongst young people. Caught, and condemned by the prefect, he was sentenced to be beaten and beheaded. According to tradition, the sentence was carried out on February 14 of either year 270 or 278. In fact, the very serious Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that there were at least three St. Valentines all martyred on February 14 but in three different places!


In ancient Rome February 14 was right in the middle of the festival of the Lupercalia (February 13 – 15). This festival, marking the end of the Roman year, was a celebration of purification, health and fertility. It was celebrated in a cave, most likely situated at the foot of Palatine Hill, called the Lupercal in honor of Lupercus, god of shepherds. The ritual involved the sacrifice of a he-goat by priests clad in goatskins who then anointed two young men, of patrician families, by daubing them with the blood of the sacrificed goat whose skin was then cut up in strips. Upon washing away the sacrificial blood, the youths were to burst out laughing, dress in goatskins and then run, more or less naked, through the streets of Rome using the strips of goatskin to flagellate any woman desiring to bear child within the year!


The festival harked back to an even older ritual, one of spring cleaning called Februa, hence the name of the month of February. Thus, beyond purification, the ritual is also a rite of passage: the sacrifice in the cave is of course a symbol of death (remember the initiation rites in the Magic Flute) and the laughter outburst a symbol of resurrection while the he-goat symbolizes fertility.


In spite of the ban on pagan festivals in a Rome that had become largely Christian, the festival of Lupercalia continued to coexist with Christianity during several centuries. However, in the fifth century, Pope Gelasius the first (494 – 496) thought that, since the Lupercalia was at that time only observed by the rabble, the original purpose no longer warranted its continued existence. So, he decided to ban the Lupercalia, ordering its replacement by the feast of St. Valentine.


The setting of Christmas on December 25th is another example of appropriation of a pagan festival by the Church. The date was chosen to supplant the most important feast of the mithraic cult, that of sol invictus or Natalis invicti. The mithraic cult, widespread in Rome and in Asia Minor in the third and fourth centuries, celebrated by that festival the return of the sun triumphing over the winter night. In the Christian world, the setting of Christmas on December 25 occurred sometime during the fourth century. Pope Benedict XVI considers that it was natural to set Christmas on December 25 since it occurs nine months after the Annunciation! Given the number of Church Fathers who have thought that the relation between sol invictus and Christmas is established, we may wonder whether the date of March 25 for the Annunciation is itself either an arbitrary date or an exercise in bootstrapping: after having set Christmas at December 25 why not set the date of the Annunciation at March 25, nine months before!


Valentine’s Day and Christmas on not the only two Christian feasts that have supplanted pagan festivals. While there are numerous other examples, let us examine only two additional ones: Rogation Days and the feast of San John the Baptist.

The Rogation Days where instituted by the Church to appease God’s anger at man’s transgressions and to obtain bountiful harvests. In England, these days where known as “Gang Days » and “Cross Week », and in Germany as it Bittage, Bittwoche, Kreuzwoche. There were two Rogation Days: the Major Rogation Day on April 25 and the Minor Rogation Days which occurred during the three days preceding the feast of the Ascension. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Rogation Days « have been introduced to counteract the ancient Robigalia, on which the heathens held processions and supplications to their gods » for bountiful harvests and, in the case of Minor Rogation Days, for the avoidance of late frosts. In Rome, the Robigalia were held on the same days as the Major and Minor Rogations and the Major Rogation Day procession used the same itinerary in the city of Rome as did the supplanted pagan festival!


As a last example of appropriation, let us examine the one pagan festival that resisted for a very long time its supplantation by a Christian feast: the Scandinavian feast of the summer solstice on June 21. Today, the feast of St. John the Baptist on the same day has replaced it.


It is interesting, as well as enriching, to think back on the symbolism of the pagan festivals that have been supplanted by Christian feasts.