Having just experienced an episode of unrequited love and a broken heart, I thought this a good time to explore the origins of Valentine’s Day, another holiday on our calendar that has been sanitized and commericialized to the point of nonrecognition.
Many sources reach back to ancient Rome (as early as the 4th century BC) to find the origins of Valentines Day, then a pagan celebration of the god Lupercus. Celebrated between Feb 13th and Feb 15th, Romans honored the god of fertility with rituals including sacrifices of dogs and goats.
The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.
The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.
Included with the lottery and general merry making, Lupercalia celebrated Lupa, the wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city of Rome.
Lupercalia was a very ancient, possibly pre-Roman pastoral festival, observed on February 13 through 15, to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Lupercalia subsumed Februa, an earlier-origin spring cleansing ritual held on the same date, which gives the month of February (Februarius) its name.
Of course the Church wanted to put a stop to this festival, but they needed an alternative party and searched for a “lover’s saint.” They found their Saint in Valentine, bishop of Ineramna, who had been stoned and beheaded by the Roman Emperor Claudius on Feb. 24th 270. Valentine had defied Claudius’ order to abolish marriages, and continued to perform the sacrament of matrimony for young lovers in secret. It didn’t stay secret, Valentine was told to either renounce Christianity or face execution. Valentine refused and was executed.
In AD 496 Pope Gelasius outlawed the Luperican festival and replaced it with the Church’s holy day with the patron saint Valentine. The lottery was retained, using saints names instead of women. I can’t imagine it was terrbily popular in the beginning (young men drawing a saint’s name instead of a willing female), but with time the pagan festival faded. I’ve often thought that the pagan festivals sounded much more fun than the alternatives offered up by the Church.
Although Lupercalia was outlawed, the tradition of courting prospective mates in February remained, and young Roman men offered women they admired handwritten greetings of affection on February 14th. Thus the Valentines Day card was born.
The earliest surviving example of a Valentines Day card was sent in 1415 by Charles, duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London.
One of the oldest printed Valentine’s Day card from 1727
“Since on this ever Happy day,
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design,
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.”
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears:
What is it else? a madness most discreet,
A choking gall and a preserving sweet.
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1.1)
Because my own love affair started around Valentines Day last year and ended with the new year, I can consider it my own personal Lupercalian lottery for the year 2015. If wallowing in self pity for a short while makes you feel better after a break up, here is my own Playlist For A Broken Heart:
Nora Jones What Am I Too You?
Ricky Lee Jones A Lucky Guy
Emmylou Harris Easy From Now On
Bonnie Rait I Can’t Make You Love Me
Dolly Parton I Will Always Love You
Adele Someone Like You
Righteous Brothers You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling
Melody Gardot Baby I’m A Fool
The Eagles Wasted Time
Nora Jones Cold Cold Heart
The Eagles What Do I Do With My Heart
Madeleine Peyroux Smile
A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera Say Something
After some self pity, it’s time to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and carry on. Second only to Christmas, the greeting card industry estimates that 145 million Valentines cards were purchased last year. Whether you send a card, flowers, or have a romantic dinner this February 14th, it all started with a pagan festival, was transformed by the Church, and then capitalized upon by the greeting card and other industries. Happy Valentines Day.