Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Valentine, February 14

Saint ValentineArticle

On February 14, 270, this saint, a priest, died through the persecution of Claudius II. His feast was from earliest times associated with the traditional habit of boys and girls declaring their love or choosing a “steady partner” for the following twelve months. The selection was often done, especially in France and England, by a game of chance, the boys drawing the names of their respective “Valentines.” Our greeting cards on Valentine’s Day are a modern form of this ancient practice.

How did the saint become associated with this unusual lore? Various explanations have been attempted. It is said that the practice originated because people believed that on Saint Valentine’s Day birds started to mate. However, such legends do not explain the custom. Besides, in central Europe the Feast of Saint Agnes (January 21) has always been considered the mating day of birds, although Saint Valentine is venerated as the “patron of lovers” even there.

Another explanation is found in a medieval legend which tells how the saint, shortly before his execution, wrote a kind note to the friendly daughter of his prison master, signing it “from your Valentine.” This legend was obviously intended to provide a belated reason for the already existing custom of the day.

There is no doubt that the historical origin of Valentine lore is based on a coincidence of dates. The pagan Romans annually celebrated a great feast on February 15 which they called Lupercalia in honor of the pastoral god Lupercus (an equivalent of the Greek god Pan). On the eve of the Lupercalia, and as part of it, young people held a celebration of their own, declaring their love for each other, proposing marriage, or choosing partners for the following year. (In the Roman republic the new vear started on March 1; hence the names of the last four months: September, October, November, December, which mean, respectively, the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.)

This Roman youth festival with its pledge of love stood under the patronage of the goddess Juno Februata. When the Roman Empire became Christian, all worship and patronage of pagan gods naturally ceased. But the youth festival continued, as affection, love, and marriage are not the prerogative of a pagan cult only. There was but one aspect of the celebration that had to be changed: its patronage. And so, in place of the goddess Juno Februata a Christian saint took over. He was, quite naturally, the saint whose feast day the Church celebrated on February 14 – the priest and martyr Valentine.

A proof of the Roman origin of Saint Valentine’s lore is the fact that in countries of Roman historical background even the smaller details, like the games of chance, the choice made for the “new year,” and similar customs, were continued right into the later Middle Ages, while in other countries these details are missing and only the fact that Saint Valentine is the patron of young lovers is observed. The American custom of sending Valentine cards is unknown in countries of northern Europe. It came from England, where it had developed as a substitute for the ancient Roman “choice” of partners on February 14. This is actually what the traditional words imply: “You are my Valentine,” that is, I offer you my companionship of affection and love for the next twelve months, and I am willing to consider marriage if this companionship proves satisfactory for both of us.

Liturgical Prayer – Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that we may he freed from all threatening dangers through the intercession of Thy holy martyr Valentine, whose birthday we celebrate.

MLA Citation

  • Francis X Weiser, SJ. “Valentine, February 14”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 1 May 2015. Web. 24 October 2016. <>