Mid-February was once marked by a Pagan celebration of fertility. The Catholic Church ended this tradition and brought in St Valentine, the patron of lovers.
Chiara Pazzano

UPDATED 5:58 PM - 3 Sep 2013

Among the ancient Romans, and possibly even earlier, mid-February used to be marked by Pagan celebrations of fertility, called the 'Lupercalia'.

February was considered a time of the year to prepare for spring, considered the season to celebrate re-birth. Purification rituals used to take place: houses were cleaned and salt and flour were spread around the homes.

The Lupercalia festival was partly in honour of 'Lupa', the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.

Gods called 'Lupercali' were believed to keep wolves away from cultivated fields.

From the fourth century AD, Pagan Romans used to worship the god Lupercus.

Priests called 'Luperci' used to walk to the cave where, according to a legend, the 'Lupa' fed Romolus and Remus, holding ceremonies here.


The streets of Rome used to be stained with the blood of animals, as a sign of fertility, while another ritual consisted in a 'lottery of love', where the names of male and female Lupercus' worshippers were put in a jar.

Then a child used to extract the names of two candidates to nominate a couple that would live together for a whole year.


In 496AD, Pope Gelasius ended this Pagan celebration.

Pope Gelasius replaced the 'Lupercalia' with a Christian festival celebrating the purification of the Virgin Mary instead: Candlemas, observed forty days after Christmas, on February 2.

He also introduced St Valentine, a bishop who had lived 400 years earlier. St Valentine was born in Terni, in central Italy, in 175AD, and was considered the protector of lovers.

According to some historians, the Catholic Church was determined to end the cult of Lupercus and St Valentine was a perfect figure to replace this immoral god.

A legend tells that Bishop Valentine was the first Catholic authority to celebrate the union between a Pagan soldier and a young Catholic girl. The legend has two endings.

In one, when Emperor Aurelian ordered all Christians to be persecuted, Bishop Valentine was jailed and tortured along Via Flaminia, which runs through Rome.

Another version of the legend says that in 270AD, Valentine, then famous for having brought together a pagan and a Catholic, was invited by Emperor Claudius II to his palace.

Claudius II tried to convert him to Paganism, but Bishop Valentine tried instead to convert the Emperor to Catholicism.

On February 24, 270AD, Valentine was stoned to death and decapitated.

The legend also tells that when Valentine was in jail waiting for his execution, he fell in love with the blind daughter of the guardian of the jail, and that he performed a miracle on her, giving her sight.

Before dying, he left a love note for her ending it with 'from your Valentine,' a sentence that since then has become emblematic of love.