It’s that time of year again. The time to be in the mood for love. In 2 days, that black mark of a holiday (if you’re alone and single) arrives, and to make things worse, it’s on a Friday. But what are the origins of this magical day we call Valentine’s Day? Sure, it’s general knowledge that somewhere, at sometime there was a guy named St. Valentine who did stuff that earned him his own day. But is there more to this? Does Valentine’s Day have a deeper past than this single man?
Good Ol’ Roman Paganism
February had for a long time been a month of celebration. An early, primordial celebration in Ancient Rome was Februa, which would lend itself to the eventual name of the month. Februa, also called Februalia, was a festival of ritual purification, a sort of pre-Spring washing or cleansing, which makes sense considering it’s often a rainy month. While the subject of celebration is unrelated to Valentine’s Day, its dates do match: the festival ran from February 13 to 15.
Februa would be overtaken by another Roman festival: Lupercalia. This festival was definitely one of those weirder, pagan, blood and sacrifice parties. If you know your Latin, you’ll know this had to do with wolves (lupus). Lupa in this case was the she-wolf who legend has it raised Romulus and Remus. Special priests would dress as goats and dogs and then sacrifice these respective animals. Whereas Februa celebrated purification, Lupercalia covered that as well as fertility; fertility would be the connection to Valentine’s Day’s theme of romantic love. One of the most notable parts of the festivities was when young, noble males would run through the streets, naked except for the skins of the sacrificed goats/dogs. Using thongs made from the animal skin, they’d strike awaiting women. Supposedly this strike would ensure pregnancy and a smooth delivery. Crazy right?
Here Comes the Saint
Both these festivals took place midway through the month. Centuries after the founding of Rome, indeed after the end of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, true Valentine’s Day would come. During the reign of Claudius II (also called Claudius Gothicus) in the 3rd century (that’s the 200s), there supposedly lived a Roman priest named Valentinus. There is no single, authoritative or verifiable story about his life, but there is a notable version in which he weds couples. Practicing Christianity, let alone acting as a priest and presiding over Christian marriages, was punishable by death. To make matters worse, Valentinus had been marrying Roman soldiers to wives. Claudius II believed that unmarried soldiers were better soldiers (no attachments, no sympathy, I kind of get it) and therefore decreed none could marry. Well, naturally Valentinus’s actions brought him into conflict with this. The Emperor had the priest locked up, but curiously took a liking to the man. It was only when Valentinus attempted to convert the Emperor did he seal his own fate. The priest was beheaded, but not before writing a letter to his love signed “Your Valentine.” As a Christian martyr and saint he was given a feast day, hence February 14 (another example of Christian-pagan holiday fusion).
Cute isn’t it? It’s probably all colored bubbles, smoke and mirrors, apocryphal, whatever word you want to use. But it does make a nice story and it does make a great moneymaker for Hallmark and every florist around the world.
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