FAITH & REFLECTION — Christianity seems to have been adept at turning pagan festivals into Christian celebrations. In fact, some historians allege that Christians “stole” some of their celebrations. I would respectfully challenge that view and purport that the profound simplicity, pristine beauty and powerful promises of Christ, simply outclassed and replaced them. Undeniably, however, there are connections.
The word “Easter” is connected to Ishtar, the Assyrian/Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex; her symbols were the egg and the bunny.
The Romans introduced Saturnalia, a week long winter solstice celebration from December 17-25. This week, a wanton carnival, celebrating the lengthening of days and the return of the sun, was replaced by Christmas, which celebrates the arrival of The Son.
This Sunday, we will celebrate Valentine’s Day. It is not currently a Christian celebration, but it was initially. And, like Easter and Christmas, it, too, had a connection to a pagan celebration.
In the pre-Roman era, the Festival of Lupercalia was observed on February 13–15, with the purpose of warding off evil spirits, purifying the nation and promoting health and fertility. The rites, carried out by Luperci priests, included sacrificing two male goats and a dog. Later, after a feast, strips of hide were cut from the sacrificial animals to be used as whips. Young women would line up and receive lashes from the improvised whips, believing that the lashes received would prevent sterility, ensure fertility and lessen the pains of childbirth.
During the reign of Emperor Claudius II, an edict was passed forbidding marriage. The motive was to weaken family ties, so that young man could be more easily recruited for his army. Valentine, a priest in Rome during the same time, in contradiction to the edict, performed several private marriages. Following imprisonment and beatings, he was beheaded on February 14, on or around the year of 270 A.D.
While in prison, he sent notes of encouragement and Scripture verses to some of the young couples he had helped. He also became rather transfixed with the jailer’s daughter and made many loving, tender notes for her. His last note, which she received on the morning of his execution, ended with the words “Your Valentine”. Subsequently, on February 14, 496, in the now “christianized” Empire, Valentine’s Day was named in his honor, simultaneously and significantly disabling Lupercalia.
Most Christians have no problem celebrating Valentine’s Day. However, they recognize quite readily that the greatest love is not shown on Valentine’s Day. And the greatest gift is not a Valentine’s card, chocolates or flowers, but the magnanimous gift of His Son.
As we pass along the Valentine’s gifts this year, let us remember to “Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
Happy Valentine’s Day!