History of the Holiday We Know Today as Valentine’s day

For Jesus and the culture

Valentine’s Day is a special day celebrated by millions of people around the world. But how did it come to be? The answer lies in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia which was adopted and adapted by the Church to create the holiday we know today. This article will somewhat explore how this transformation took place and how evolved over time. What is Lupercalia?

Lupercalia was a fertility festival celebrated in Ancient Rome, more attributed to lust than love in ancient times. Over time, the Catholic Church adapted this festival to create the holiday we know today – Valentine’s Day.

The origins of Lupercalia are not fully understood. It is thought to have originated as a sacrificial cult that worshipped the Great Goddess. A wild goat was sacrificed on this day and its blood would be used to anoint the heads of young girls and initiate them into the cult. Young men would do battle with each other in order to win a prize such as marriage, money, or land in what is thought to be a fertility ritual. Unsafe abortions were also commonly done at this time, so the goddess could bestow health and fertility onto the initiate.

The women who won these prizes were often called epulas while their husbands were called famuli/famulari. These terms are used to this day in juridical contexts. There is a plaque with the inscription “Epulae et famuli in urbe Roma” (“epulas and familiars at Rome”) on the façade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. The word “famulus” is a Latin derivative of the Roman term famulus, which originally simply meant “servant”. In ancient Rome, a slave who had been freed was called a famulus (and thus the term became synonymous with slave) who could become either an ordinary servant or a staff member in some important office. After gaining his freedom and becoming rich, a man might use his wealth to support slaves who would do anything he asked and serve as his familiars. Slaves freed by their masters were also called famuli. Within certain levels of society, the first slave was the owner’s wife, who could not be forced to work outside the home.

The Roman Republic and, later, the Roman Empire allowed slaves to buy their freedom. Slaves who achieved sufficient merit might be granted citizenship by the state and allowed to enter public life. In ancient China during imperial times (between 600 BC/200 AD), people were classified as slaves if captured in war; those enslaved would have their individual liberty taken from them if they were unable or unwilling to perform labor for a period of time ranging from one month (in some cases) up to three years without probation. Persons could also be sentenced to forced labor if they were convicted of a jailable offense, such as murder. The law also granted authorities the ability to sentence persons convicted of non-jailable offenses to forced labor for up to nine months. 

When the Catholic Church came to power, it tried to do away with cultural and pagan practices that it believed would get in the way of people’s salvation. Lupercalia, a holiday based on lust and fertility,  was not one they could encourage celebration of, especially while encouraging practices of chastity and purity. As a result, the Church banned Lupercalia in AD 404. And now we have a neat and tidy Valentine’s day. 

Valentine’s Day is not the only day that has a rocky holiday history.  The Catholic Church also tried to make the date of Christmas conform to the date of Jesus’ birth. It took some time for them to get it right, though..The first mention in Church history notes that December 25th was celebrated as Christ’s birthday in AD 336 by Pope Julius I and others that he appointed, but there is no evidence that December 25th was actually celebrated then or even at all during Jesus’ lifetime.

2nd Century – Church Father Irenaeus was the first to write about it: “For our Lord’s birthday shall be yearly observed on the 25th of March, on which day He rose from the dead.”

3rd Century – Church Father Tertullian wrote about it: “This day [December 25th] is that on which our Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God, was born according to the flesh.”

4th Century – Church Father Hippolytus in The Liturgy of the Hours writes: “On December 25th, Christ our God is born!”

5th Century – Pope Pius I in AD 525 decreed that December 25th would be celebrated as the day when Christianity began.

6th Century – Church Father Isidore of Seville wrote about it: “This day [December 25th] . . . we celebrate with joy and gladness in honor of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was born according to the flesh”

1400 – Renaissance scholar Petrarch wrote about the use of candles on this day: “On December 25th, in imitation of the birthday of Christ, there should be no light save such as is given by a candle.

“1569 – Bishop John Calvin wrote about Christmas celebrations… and so on and so on until we have the Christmas holiday we know and love today.

I am not discouraging you from celebrating holidays with your family. I hope you have plenty of opportunities to hang out and dwell in divine love; however, I do think we should be knowledgeable about what the holidays mean and how they came to be.

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