In 313 A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity and ended Rome’s persecution of Christians. In 380 A.D., Christianity becomes the official state religion of the Roman Empire. These actions not only enabled the teachings of Christianity to spread unhindered within the empire, it encouraged non-Christians to convert to the once-persecuted religion.
The pagans, however, who adopted Christianity as their religion did not entirely abandon the traditions and practices they held before their “conversion.” One of these traditions brought into the church was the fertility celebration known as the Lupercalia, which eventually became the Valentine’s holiday.
The St. Valentine who inspired the holiday may have been two different men.
Officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, St. Valentine is known to be a real person who died around A.D. 270. However, his true identity was questioned as early as A.D. 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who referred to the martyr and his acts as “being known only to God.” One account from the 1400s describes Valentine as a temple priest who was beheaded near Rome by the emperor Claudius II for helping Christian couples wed. A different account claims Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, also martyred by Claudius II on the outskirts of Rome. Because of the similarities of these accounts, it’s thought they may refer to the same person. Enough confusion surrounds the true identity of St. Valentine that the Catholic Church discontinued liturgical veneration of him in 1969, though his name remains on its list of officially recognized saints
Red roses were the favorite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Red is also a color that signifies strong feelings.
In Roman mythology, Cupid is the god of desire, affection, and erotic love. Cupid today appears shooting his bow to inspire romantic love.
It is unclear the origin of the familiar heart shape used for Valentine’s celebration. One possibility involves the now-extinct North African plant silphium. The city-state of Cyrene had a lucrative trade in the plant, which looks just like the heart shape used in modern times.