Luperculia, running from Feb 13 to Feb 15 was celebrated to rid Rome of bad juju and inspire the sexiness of spring. Naked and drunk, young guys would slap a line-up of women with animal hides; those from the goat they had just sacrificed. Sounds messy… but I guess whatever makes you fertile! This ritual was accompanied by a coupling off of the young as the guys pulled random girls’ names from a jar, to go off and hook up for the rest of the festival.
Some of the strangest traditions ever practiced in ancient Rome happened during Lupercalia. At the height of its popularity in the 1st century BC, the Romans themselves had forgotten most of the festival’s animal-sacrificing, she wolf-worshipping, ritual-whipping origins and just got in to the sex and gluttony part of the holiday.
So how is all this exactly connected to St. Valentine? Well, nobody knows for sure. Christianity was certainly the vehicle for its long life and passage to America. Italy, England, Scotland, and Ireland all claim that they have his real remains. This story is martyrdom at its best. To clarify – at least two men (maybe a third) – all named Valentine – were executed in different years, by a desperate Emperor… all supposedly on Feb 14ths.
This was the near the end of the Roman empire and they were feeling pressure from all sides. Education had deteriorated. Taxes rose. Quality of life was poor. Rome had grown too large and was vulnerable at the fringes. They had wars that constantly needed more soldiers. Marriage, he thought, made soldiers homesick, emotional, and weak. So like a boss he banned it. At least one of the Saint Valentines was a bishop who held secret marriage ceremonies for soldiers – and was put to death for it. Another aided prison escapes, and – as the story goes – penned notes from prison on heart-shaped leaves, signed, “from your Valentine.”
In yet another classic Roman attempt to use the pagans throughout 5th Century Europe, the powers-that-be outlawed their rites/rights and tried to combine Lupercalia into St. Valentine’s day, thinking the pagan cult ritual would soon just die out. But it was the empire that was dying. And although they could put clothes on people, they couldn’t stop the love festival.
Later, Christian Medieval chivalry and poetry reimagined Valentine’s day as a love exchange; a day when birds mated. The tradition of trading paper cards or coins appeared in Europe. In England, Chaucer began pairing it with romance and Shakespeare passed the torch to us.
Eventually, Valentine became as popular as to become one of the most popular saints around. By the 18th century, gift-giving and exchanging hand-made cards on Valentine’s Day had become common in England. Hand-made valentine cards made of lace, ribbons, and featuring cupids and hearts began to be created. Christianity brought it to the American colonies and the industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards that really caught on. Today’s multi-billion dollar a year Hallmark holiday bears little resemblance to its origins, but the power of its purpose lasts to this day: claim the one you love, express your love, and celebrate it any way you want.
Happy Valentine’s Day!