Of Martyrs and Marshmallows

Valentine's Day Origins

What better way to mark Valentine's Day than to hear from our old friend Chuck Colson. No, seriously. Stay tuned to BreakPoint.

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Chuck Colson

Okay, so Chuck Colson was not a hopeless romantic! But that didn't stop him from commenting on the uniquely Christian origins of Valentine's Day. In this BreakPoint commentary, recorded way back in 1998, Chuck tells us how the commemoration of the ultimate human love—Christian martyrdom—stood in stark contrast and ultimately replaced a popular pagan festival. Here's Chuck.

A California pet store is offering the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for the person who has everything: designer hermit crabs. The crabs’ shells have been hand-dipped in 24-karat gold.

Well, anything for a buck. Gold-plated crustaceans are indeed an offbeat gift idea for daily_commentary_02_14_14a holiday on which we celebrate romantic love. But how many of us know that Valentine’s Day began as a symbol of Christian love?

Early church records are sketchy, but it’s believed that actually several men named Valentine were martyred in the third century A.D. This was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius II, a ruler known for his brutal persecution of Christians.

One of these Valentines was a priest who secretly married couples against the wishes of Claudius, who believed that unmarried men made better soldiers. Two other Valentines—a priest and a bishop—were beheaded by Claudius late in the third century.

Historians are not certain which Valentine began to be celebrated on February 14. But they are certain why the church chose that day. You see, in ancient Rome, February 14 was the eve of a pagan festival called Lupercalia. During this festival, the Romans worshipped Februa, a goddess of marriage, childbirth, and sexuality.

Brian Bates, who's a professor at the University of Sussex, is an expert on how we celebrate holidays. Bates writes that during Lupercalia, "young men and women drew lots for sexual partners, in preparation for a day of sanctioned license the following day."

But as Christianity spread throughout the ancient world, the church began replacing pagan festivals with holy days. In an effort to control the lewder aspects of the Lupercalian festival, the church fathers replaced this pagan holiday with the feast of Saint Valentine, in honor of one of the martyred Christians. Instead of drawing the names of sexual partners out of a box, young men were encouraged to pick the names of saints—and then spend the following year emulating the saint whose name they drew.

This focus on love lingered on, but was sanctified from mere sexual license to chaste romantic love. Not surprisingly, the romantic aspect is what became popular, not the more austere love of the Christian martyr.

Now, it’s fun to exchange gifts with our sweethearts, and I’d be the last person to ask you to give up roses and romantic dinners on Valentine’s Day. And I won’t ask you to give up reading love poems and substitute meditations on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

But we ought to take a moment to remember the early Christian saints as well, and how their martyrdom dramatically illustrates their love for God. In the midst of ourNewsletter_Gen_180x180_B romantic celebrations, we ought to remind ourselves that for Christians, the love between husband and wife is meant to reflect the love between God and His church. Throughout the Scriptures, the imagery of the love between a husband and wife is perhaps the most compelling symbol of the relationship between God and His people.

So while we’re buying those roses and chocolates—and maybe even one of those gold-plated hermit crabs—we ought to remind ourselves and our kids about the Author of all love: not Hollywood or Hallmark cards, but God Himself.

(This commentary originally aired February 13, 1998.)

Further Reading and Information

BP-Takeaction_021414Of Martyrs and Marshmallows: Valentine's Day Origins

The history of the celebration of Valentine's Day is much more meaningful than our modern-day notions of romantic love. Check out the resources listed below for the real story, and for real-life accounts of the love of Christ demonstrated by saints who have gone before.


Butler's Lives of the Saints: Concise, Modernized Edition
Bernard Bangley | Paraclete Press | September 2005

Foxe's Book of Martyrs: A History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Triumphant Deaths of the Early Christian and the Protestant Martyrs
John Foxe, William Byron | Hendrickson Publishers | May 2004

The Four Loves
C. S. Lewis | Harvest Books | September 1971

The Mystery of Marriage: Meditations on the Miracle
Mike Mason | Multnomah Publishers | June 2005