What is the Real History of Valentine’s Day?
January 27, 2017
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By Kaliah Felcher
Valentine’s Day is a magical day for the romantics, but the cynics claim that it is a hoax created by card and chocolate companies. The controversy really begs the question, how did Valentine’s Day really come to be?
Way, way back in the day — like, late third century — an ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia was performed yearly on February 15. For us here in the modern age, the origins of the festival are a little obscure, but it has been recorded that Lupercalia was a fertility rite, as well as a dedication of sorts to the Roman god of agriculture, called Faunus, and the revered founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. According to the History Channel, the Luperci, the order of priests who oversaw the festival, would gather at a sacred cave where the twins Romulus and Remus were thought to have been raised by a she-wolf. Once in the cave, the priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification (history.com).
The next part of the ritual usually involved only two members of the Luperci. Encyclopedia Britannica explains that the young men would stand at the altar, where their foreheads were touched with a bloody knife, and the blood was wiped off with wool dipped in milk. The young men were required to laugh during the ritual, which is… disturbing, to say the least. And oh, that’s not all! After a feast, long strips of skin (leather thongs) were cut from the hide of the goat and/or dog (historians remain a little unclear on that detail), and, once dipped in sacrificial blood, the priests would strike the young women of the village with them. They welcomed the strikes because it meant they would become more fertile in the coming year (britannica.com).
Legend has it, later in the day, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn, or container. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. Most of the time, those matches ended in marriage. Romantic? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly nothing like today’s way of celebrating. How did this pagan (and distinctly kinky) fertility rite become Valentine’s Day?
Well, some centuries later, after Christianity became the empire’s official religion, Roman Pope Gelasius I deemed the festival un-Christian and replaced it with St. Valentine’s Day on February 14. Why Saint Valentine? This is where history gets a little sticky. There were several Saint Valentine’s who lived between the second and eighth century, all martyred. The most likely candidate for the Day of Love’s namesake is a man, Valentinus, a real person who died around 270 AD. The details surrounding the circumstances of his death are muddy, so it’s hard to know fact from legend. One story says Valentine was put to death after continuing to marry young lovers in Rome, disobeying Emperor Claudius II who outlawed it in the third century. Yet another story paints him as a tragic lover, a Christian priest imprisoned who falls in love with a girl who visits his cell. (Perhaps his jailer’s daughter.) He signed the first “valentine greeting,” signing his final letter to his love as “Your Valentine” (history.com).
However, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages, after Rome had fallen, that Valentine’s Day became “A Thing.” In fact, the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer might have made the entire thing up. There is no record of anyone celebrating Valentine’s Day in a romantic capacity until after the 1300s. Chaucer wrote his poem, “Parliament of Foules,” around 1375, in which he connects a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day, an association that simply didn’t exist before his poem gained popularity. By the seventeenth century, Valentine’s Day was well-known and celebrated throughout Great Britain (history.com).
The history of Valentine’s Day is just another example of how nothing ever really goes away or fades out — it just changes. Evidence of the past is everywhere. All you have to do is dig deep, and you might find the vestiges of a centuries-old fertility festival hidden under cheesy red hearts and too-sweet candy and fat babies with wings. But if I were you, I wouldn’t go unearthing strange pagan rituals, or spanking your significant other with bloody skin this Valentine’s Day. Just saying.