Valentine’s Day is holiday that’s received with either open arms or flat-out rejection, much like the romantic pursuits of many on February the 14th. The day is renowned for being for those in love, a day where you’re expected to burn a hole in your pocket for a significant other, or even simply to give cards – valentines – to those you wish to express any kind of warm sentiment.
That said, if you’re single, cheap, or pessimistic, you probably don’t like what the holiday has become. It’s a constant reminder of consumerism as stores are flooded with reds and pinks, hearts and Cupids, and men awkwardly trying to acquire lingerie through shifty-eyes and glances over their shoulders. So, then, what are the true roots of the holiday and how deep do they run? What was this holiday before it became enrobed in chocolate and sprinkled with rose petals?
For that, we’ll have to go back to hedonistic ancient Rome for a rather fitting start.
Researchers speculate that the Roman festival Lupercalia was where it all began. It was a pagan celebration of purification and fertility in honor of the Roman god Lupercus and it also incorporated the founding story of Rome, where brothers Romulus and Remus were nursed by a she-wolf as infants.
Taking place annually on the day Lupercus’ temple was founded, February 15, at the site where Romulus and Remus were raised, Lupercalia was extremely popular. The priests of said deity, the Lucerci, would get young men to perform sacrifices. From the skins of the animals sacrificed, the young men would wear goatskin and run in the streets, whipping women with leather thongs.
While today most people – let alone only the fairer sex - would likely be terrified by this spectacle it was quite the opposite back then. Women lined up in anticipation as a lash from the sacrifice ensured fertility and eased the pain of childbirth. Then young ladies would place their name in an urn and eligible bachelors in town would draw from it like a lottery. Now how’s about that for a first date?
After hundreds of years, however, Catholicism rolled into Rome and the festival was outlawed by the emperor. With Catholicism came Catholic priests, and from those priests arose the legend of Saint Valentine. All three of them, in fact!
The Catholic Church officially recognizes a few men named Valentine, or more appropriate for the times, Valentinus. There are many tales associated with each Valentine, the focus of each story primarily that he was a Roman priest who would not renounce his Christian faith and performed acts of great kindness. However, the most popular legend regarding the saint involves the sending of the first “valentine.”
For doing a few different priestly things in Rome - and I do mean a few as the stories have many variations – Valentine was jailed. The saint then fell in love with his jailer’s blind daughter, who prayed with him and practiced scripture. One day, she was cured from her blindness. The night before his execution, he wrote a note of affection, asking her to always be thankful for her miracle and to forever be close to God. He signed it “From Your Valentine.” In honor of this, Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. made February 14th Valentine’s Day, the day Valentine was executed.
From fertility to miracles and lust to love, the holiday has seen quite a transformation over the centuries. We can see where it’s wild and smouldering side originated and how it’s devoted and heartfelt half emerged. All of them combined have created a day where we appreciate the ones we love and care about from friends, family, partners, to even the divine.
Valentine’s Day is a day where nobody should be lonely, even if you get shot down in flames. If such a thing should happen, you’ll have friends to share a night out with instead. Then you can help revive the memory of Lupercalia if your Valentine’s evening doesn’t pan out. Depending on your preference, that might not be so bad an option, after all.
Thanks for reading and take care!