ST Valentine’s Day is celebrated today and is often described as “the day of lovers” or “the festival of love.” It is marked by the shops decorated with red balloons, red hearts, Cupids shooting arrows, and red streamers. The bakeries offer heart-shaped cakes covered with red icing and the restaurants offer special Valentine dinners with choice wines. The stationery stores display a variety of artistic Valentine cards and the jewellers offer brooches and rings which they expect the lovers will buy. The confectioners display their striking varieties of chocolates and the florists their roses, and not to forget the TV which carries Valentine’s Day programmes from all over the world. The festival has become almost completely submerged in commerce and business is far more evident in it than “love” or “lovers.” The origin and significance of the festival have almost been completely effaced to the point where many people now believe that the festival was invented by commercial interests. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, these celebratory aspects of the festival have been somewhat restrained.
The early origin of the festival has little relationship to romantic love, which is the theme of the modern festival and none at all to commerce. The festival evolved with the blending of a non-Christian (pagan) stream with a Christian one. In the pre-Christian religion of ancient Rome, February 14th was celebrated as the Day of Juno, wife of Jupiter and Queen and Mother of the Gods. She was a protector of women and of marriage. The Day of Juno was always merged into the fertility festival of Lupercalia which occurred the next day on February 15th. The fertility which Lupercalia promoted was both agricultural and human and Lupercalia was so important to the Romans that its celebration continued even after Rome became Christian.
The festival is named St Valentine’s Day after a Catholic Saint with that name. There are 13 Catholic Saints over the centuries who bore the name Valentine, but the one after whom Valentine’s Day was named lived in the third century during the reign of the Emperor Claudius II, when Rome was still largely non-Christian. Claudius II found that recruitment to his armies had fallen and he attributed this to the fact that married men were unwilling to leave their wives and children to serve in the army. He, therefore, banned marriages.
Valentine, a Catholic priest, knew the Emperor’s order was wrong and immoral and felt determined to defy it. He therefore quietly and clandestinely began to marry hundreds of men. When his defiance of the Emperor’s order was discovered, he was executed on February 14th. The year was about 270 AD. In 498 AD Pope Gelasius canonised him as a Saint and February 14th was designated his Day. Rome by this time had become Christian, but the Romans still celebrated their Lupercalia. The Pope abolished Lupercalia and replaced it with St Valentine’s Day. St. Valentine was the patron saint of marriage, so there was still some relationship to Lupercalia.
Marriages in the ancient world were not “love marriages,” but alliances to bring forth and raise children and to unite two families. This idea of couples first falling in love and as a result, deciding to marry, was unknown in the ancient world and today, in most of Asia and Africa, “love marriages” are still regarded as alien and belonging to the West.
In the West, it was only in the 14th century when the cult of Courtly Love became an integral part of European culture that romantic love became popular and became the main basis for marriage. ‘Europe was still completely Catholic, but the church now promoted the idea of romantic love and marriage.
Europe in the Middle Ages suffered from sparse populations. The populations grew very slowly and both church and state felt that marriage and the growth of families should be promoted. St Valentine’s Day helped to imbue the idea of romantic love and marriage and the raising of large families. Other cultural inputs were used to strengthen the message of St Valentine’s Day such as birds beginning to find their mates from February 14th and the Roman God of Love, Cupid, being particularly active at this time, shooting his arrows at hearts, causing couples to fall in love and desiring to be married. Europe’s population then grew steadily making the continent’s economic and cultural development possible.
In this post-industrial age in which we live, the trend in Western countries is for the populations to decline in number, a trend which is affecting non-Western societies such as Japan as well. People are no longer getting married as a norm and even if they marry, they have very small families, at most one or two children. The same trend is affecting North America, which, except for immigration would be much like Europe. The original pre-Romantic Love message of St Valentine’s Day needs to be resuscitated, that is, for couples to be married early and have large families as a societal norm.
The message of St Valentine’s Day — romantic love, marriage, having large families — is again very relevant to Western societies and a growing number of non-Western ones. Religious groups and NGOs should again promote the core values and message of St Valentine’s Day and if this is done, the sexual superficiality and commercialisation which have now overtaken and enveloped the festival would dissipate. St. Valentine’s Day would then serve society, rather than commercial houses.