Christian Traditions 011: Valentine’s Day

Von Trapp Follow-Along: Maria makes no mention of this event.


I find this day very interesting for two main reasons. First, because it is a day that is a very traditional Christian observance without any pagan influence (see Footnote 1), but which has very little to do with Christianity. Second, because it is one of the most widely-known and widely-celebrated Christian holidays, but is based on someone who was not in Scripture, of whom we know very little, and who may have had nothing at all to do with anything his “day” commemorates or symbolizes.

cupid ringCOLOR

We typically associate Valentine’s Day with red and pink, but the traditional color for Valentine’s Day is amethyst, due to an amethyst ring Saint Valentine allegedly wore, which is also believed to be the origin of amethyst as the birth stone of February.


almond blossomSYMBOL

Based on traditions and legends, symbols for Valentine’s Day include pink blossoms, almonds, hearts, amethyst, Cupid, friendship, romantic love, marriage, birds, keys, plants/flowers, and springtime.


14 February 2015WHEN IS IT?

Valentine’s Day is celebrated in most cases on 14 February. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates it on 6 July and 30 July, while in Brazil it is celebrated 12 June.


valentineWHAT IS IT?

Although it is celebrated in many countries around the world, it is not a holiday in most of them.

St. Valentine’s Day, also known as the Feast of Saint Valentine, came into being sometime in the 500s AD and initially commemorated one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. Although stories of the martyrdoms of various men named Valentinus exist, some elements may have been fabricated. One popular story tells of a Valentine living in Rome during a time when Christians were still persecuted who officiated weddings for soldiers who were not permitted to marry (false; see Footnote 2) and ministered to Christians. As a result, he was imprisoned. While imprisoned, he healed his jailer’s daughter, Julia, on 14 February. One embellishment of the story holds that prior to his execution, he wrote her a letter and signed it, “Your Valentine.” Another legend states that Julia later planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave, a sign of undying friendship. Yet another legend states that he would cut hearts out of parchment and give them to soldiers and persecuted Christians as a reminder of the men’s vows and of God’s love; this story is believed to be the basis for the use of hearts on Valentine’s Day. He is also said to have worn an amethyst ring (common for bishops) engraved with an image of Cupid (a sign of love recognizable and legal in the Roman Empire); soldiers recognized the ring and asked him to perform marriages for them. This is thought to be the reason why amethyst is the birth stone of February and why the color allegedly attracts love.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, 6 July is celebrated in honor of the Roman Valentine described above and 30 July is celebrated in honor of a martyred Bishop of Interamna, also named Valentine or Valentine of Terni. A third Valentine was martyred in Africa.

What do we actually know about the three Valentines? Valentine of Rome really did exist. He was a priest who was martyred circa 496 AD and buried on the Via Flaminia, the ancient Roman road that led over 300 kilometers (almost 200 miles) from Rome to the Adriatic Sea. Valentine of Terni became Bishop of Interamna circa 197 AD and is believed to have been martyred during the reign of Emperor Aurelian (270-275 AD). He was also buried on the Via Flaminia, but on a different location than the Valentine of Rome. All we know about the third Valentine is that he and several companions were martyred in Africa.

Traditionally, the day of love was 12 March (St. Gregory’s Day), 22 February (Saint Vincent’s Day), or 13 June (Saint Anthony’s Day). Valentine’s Day first became associated with romance in the High Middle Ages thanks to a piece of poetry called Parlement of Foules (1382) by Gregory Chaucer and to the Charter of the Court of Love (1400) by Charles VI of France; and the earliest surviving valentines were written in the early 1400s. It developed into a version closer to what we know today, wherein lovers give each other gifts and valentines, in England in the 1700s; it then spread throughout Europe in the 1800s. Today, Chinese and South Koreans spend the most money on Valentine’s gifts. In Finland and Estonia, Valentine’s Day retains its original commemoration of friendship, not the more recent association with romantic love. Valentine’s Day is also not associated with love in Greece. In Europe, Saint Valentine’s Keys are given to lovers “to unlock the giver’s heart.” In Norfolk, England, “Jack Valentine” is said to knock on the back doors of houses and leave candy and presents for children. In Slovenia, it is said that “Valentine brings the keys of roots,” and plants and flowers therefore begin to grow on this day. It is the day when work in fields and vineyards begins, and when birds propose to and marry each other. Another proverb, “Valentin—prvi spomladin” (“Valentine—the first spring saint”), describes how Valentine marks the beginning of spring.

Valentine’s Day was once a “Feast” (a commemoration of the second-highest order in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church), but was removed largely because all we really know about Valentine is that he was buried along the Via Flaminia. In other words, he may have been a complete cad for all we know. So although it is still a “commemoration” in the Anglican Church and a “feast” day in the Lutheran Church, it is no longer officially celebrated in the Catholic Church, and so most celebrations of Valentine’s Day are now primarily cultural or regional (that is, some Catholic Churches may still commemorate it, as they are permitted but no longer required to observe this event).

Japanese valentineCULTURE NOTE: In Japan, the people celebrate all sorts of Christian holidays, though it has only the absolute most superficial meanings for them. For example, Halloween is just a day to dress up in a costume, Christmas is a day to decorate the house and maybe give a few small gifts and eat KFC, and Easter is a similarly commercial holiday. They are not days for which the Japanese recall any religious basis at all. Valentine’s Day is the same way. On Valentine’s Day, girls give gifts to guys! Usually, they give store-bought or handmade chocolates either called “chocolate of love” (本命チョコ “honmeichoko”) or “courtesy chocolate” (義理チョコ “girichoko”) as expressions of love, courtesy, or social obligation. They may also give their female friends “friendship chocolate” (友チョコ “tomochoko”). Japanese chocolate companies make half their annual sales around this time of year. Then one month later (14 March) on White Day, guys give return gifts to girls. The gifts are usually white-themed, such as white lingerie, white chocolate, and marshmallows, but also may include cookies or jewelry, etc. The rule of thumb is that the White Day gift should be triple the worth of the Valentine’s Day gift! Not giving a return gift translates to placing oneself in a position of superiority and giving a gift of equal value translates to cutting the relationship. White Day was founded by the National Confectionery Industry Association of Japan in 1978 as an “answer day” to Valentine’s Day. South Korea observes Valentine’s Day and White Day identically to Japan. Then, on 14 April, “Black Day,” people who did not receive anything in February or March go to a restaurant to eat black noodles and lament their single life.


Other days of love are 12 March (St. Gregory’s Day), 22 February (Saint Vincent’s Day), and 13 June (Saint Anthony’s Day). Other days commemorating Saint Valentine are 6 July (Valentine of Rome) and 30 July (Valentine, Bishop of Interamna). Some Southeast Asian countries celebrate Valentine’s Day, White Day (14 March), and Black Day (14 April), as described above.


There are no deeply traditional Valentine practices, but there are some newer ones that developed over the last couple hundred years that you may consider trying out.

  • Kids’ Gifts. Recall that in Norfolk, England, “Jack Valentine” leaves gifts and candy for kids at the back door. Consider doing the same for your kids.
  • Food. Recall the story above about how Julia planted an almond tree in honor of her friendship with Saint Valentine. Choose one of the following almondy Valentine’s Day recipes below to make!
    • Almond Scones with Grand Marnier Glaze. By Coco Morante (here).
    • Almond Flavor Sugar Cookies. By Chief Foodiecrush (here).
    • Valentine Cake. By Molly (here).
  • Do Something Different. As described above, Valentine’s Day is not celebrated the same way or for the same reasons everywhere.
    • Celebrate Friendship. Recall that Valentine’s Day originally had no association with romantic love, but rather with friendship. Furthermore, it still commemorates friendship rather than romantic love in some countries. Give your friends valentine’s gifts and show them what the day was all about for most of its history.
    • Celebrate Culture. Recall that in many Southeast Asian countries, Valentine’s Day is a day for girls to give guys gifts, and guys return those gifts on White Day (12 March). Break from the Western norm and do the same!


The knitting pattern for Valentine’s Day is… (drumroll please)… a heart! (Man, I’m on a roll with the really obvious ones here…) To make it especially symbolic, make it with purple yarn.

  • Knitting Pattern: “Ewe Ewe Heart Heart” by Heather Walpole (here). (Note: the pattern says nothing about the finished size.)
  • Crochet Pattern: “Decorative Hearts” by Linda Cyr (here). (Note: the pattern says the finished size is 3” x 4.25”, which is larger than I wanted for my own ornaments. If you’re fine with that size, have fun. If not, consider changing the number of rows or stitches.)





Footnote 1: It has been suggested that Valentine’s Day is based on Lupercalia because of the former’s association with love and the latter’s association with fertility, two vaguely similar concepts. However, Valentine’s Day was not associated with love until Chaucer’s poetry in the 1300s, about 800 years after Valentine’s Day first came to be. Some sources also claim that Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with the Feast of the Purification of Mary on 14 February, again referencing the connection to romantic love. However, (A) there is no indication that Gelasius intended such, (B) the dates don’t fit the theory because the Feast of the Purification of Mary was only celebrated in Jerusalem during Gelasius’s time, (C) the Feast of the Purification of Mary was actually the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord during Gelasius’s time and was not associated with Mary at all until well after Gelasius’s time, and (D) the Feast of the Purification of Mary was only set to 14 February because it occurred 40 days after 6 January, which the Eastern Church considered the date of Jesus’ birth (the Western church considered 25 December to be the date of Jesus’ birth and so the Purification of Mary would be observed 40 days after 25 December on 2 February rather than 40 days after 6 January on 14 February). (For more information, see my previous post on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, a.k.a., Candlemas.) Finally, another author named Alban Butler claimed without any evidence to back it up that men and women drew names from a jar during Lupercalia to form couples, and that this is the origin of Valentine’s letters. However, this practice was never associated with Lupercalia and actually began in the Middle Ages, when men would draw names of girls to sleep with. This practice was combatted by priests, and so had no genuine or original connection to Valentine’s Day.

On a related note… Coincidentally, I’ve read accusations against every Christian holiday occurring in February of a basis in Lupercalia. But this should not be surprising because any Christian holiday—of which there are several dozen throughout the year—will occur in close proximity to some ancient pagan holiday—of which there are also several dozen throughout the year—on the very limited Gregorian calendar—on which there are only one dozen months. So if you want to accuse one holiday of being based on another, it would be very easy to do if your only basis is temporal proximity. Furthermore, because every holiday typically symbolizes numerous things, even creating a connection based on some vague or even very specific similarity in symbolism should not be difficult.


Footnote 2: According to legend, Emperor Claudius II issued a decree that soldiers were not to marry because he believed married men could not be good soldiers. In reality, no such marriage ban was ever issued. In fact, after defeating the Goths, Claudius instructed his soldiers “to take two or three women for themselves.” (Source)


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