In honor of Valentine’s Day I thought I’d share a little of the history of the holiday. Admittedly, that’s tough to do because the holiday’s origins are somewhat murky. Even reputable historians can’t seem to come to full agreement on all the details. Keeping that in mind, though, what follows is one of the most accepted takes on the subject.
In the ancient city of Rome different kinds of pagan festivals were held during set times of the year. The mid-February festival was called Lupercalia, which was held February 13-15. Lupercalia was what we might call a “love feast.” It was held to honor the supposed truth that birds began their mating season halfway through February.
The holiday festivities began with the sacrificing of two male goats and a dog. Following the sacrifice, the men who officiated over the holiday dressed themselves up in the skins of the sacrificed goats and ran around the walls of the city. As they ran they carried whips in their hands, whips made from strips of the animals’ skins. Girls and young women would line up along the route to receive lashes from these whips. A lash would supposedly ensure fertility upon a woman for the coming year. If you know your William Shakespeare you know that the beginning of his famous play Julius Caesar is set during the celebrating of Lupercalia. Caesar instructs Mark Antony to be sure and strike Caesar’s wife Calpurnia with a lash so that her barrenness might be ended.
Okay, if you also know your Catholic history you know that Catholicism eventually arose and became nothing less than the mandated state religion of the Roman empire. But the Catholic church understood how much the Romans loved their various festivals, and the Church feared outright revolt if it completely did away with them. So the Bishops and Popes took a different approach. Over the course of the years, they systematically “Christianized” the holidays. They did this by removing the rank, barbaric pagan rituals from the celebrations and putting Christian slants on them.
Thus, the late December holiday that celebrated the rebirth of the sun became Christmas, which celebrates the birth of the Son. The early spring holiday that celebrated the supposed resurrection of Tammuz, the son of Semiramis (also known as Ishtar, Astarte, and Eostre), became Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. The end-of-fall festival that was associated with the dead became All Hallows Eve (of which Halloween is a derivation), with All Hollows (Saints) Day being November 1 and celebrating the honoring of the Catholic Saints. And, yes, the mid-February celebration known as Lupercalia got a religious makeover too. It became the celebration of the death of a man named Saint Valentine on February 14.
There is much debate as to the actual identity of Saint Valentine. Some historians contend that three different men named Valentine were merged into one myth. Others say that two Valentines were merged. Others say there was just one. If we go with the idea that there was just one, the legend concerning him is reasonably basic.
As the legend goes, Father Valentine was a priest who lived during the 3rd century when the Roman emperor Claudius ruled. Claudius was an ambitious military ruler who believed in keeping vast numbers of soldiers in the field and away from their families for long periods of time. To keep his soldiers from getting homesick, he even went so far as to outlaw marriage altogether. Father Valentine defied this ban and continued to secretly marry young couples. Eventually Claudius found out and had Father Valentine arrested and sentenced to death. As Valentine sat in prison awaiting his execution, young couples he had secretly wed would visit him and pass him flowers and notes to show their appreciation.
Another part of the legend says that while Valentine was in prison he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. On February 14, the day of his execution, he passed the girl a note that was signed “From your Valentine.” If you believe the legend, this was the beginning of the sending of Valentine’s Day cards. What we do know for sure is that in 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius made the date for the celebration of Lupercalia February 14, most likely tying it in with the death of Father Valentine on that date. And the rest, we might say, is greeting-card-industry history.