The unassuming and highly curious holiday of Valentine’s Day will soon be upon us, and as usual, people are revving up to honor the most redeeming quality of the human experience—love. Although most of society has no idea where the holiday stems from or why it deserves observation, they line up to buy their heart-shaped cards, bang out some obligatory sentiments with the kids, and secure pricey dinner reservations. It’s Valentine’s Day—don’t you have to? Other people smirk dismissively and say the holiday is for amateurs; it’s just a commercially motivated day designed to snag some extra dollars from your wallet—it doesn’t have any real significance at all. But what is the true answer? Is Valentine’s Day somehow related to romantic love, is it historically significant in some way, or is it just the brain-child of Hallmark Cards?
The vast majority of our American holidays—Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter—all date back to a darker time in history when humans struggled to conquer their fears and explain away past injustices by establishing a reason to celebrate. It’s easier to forget the genocide of the indigenous when there’s roasted turkey, right? And the frightening pagan tales of what happens to naughty children are more palatable with gifts, no? There’s no crime in this—it makes the past more digestible and gives us an excuse to embrace joy, have a drink, and enjoy the happiness of the moment.
And then there’s Valentine’s Day—the fuzzy, romantic holiday for lovers. It doesn’t commemorate a religious event, it doesn’t attempt to mask a past atrocity —in fact, it doesn’t seem to have any real point at all. And yet, we have those ancient Romans to thank for this delightfully nondescript celebration that brings together many different ancient traditions. Just when you thought you may have found a holiday free of religious separatism and violence, history reminds us that Valentine’s Day is actually a paganistic tradition so old, history itself is not even sure exactly when it began. In fact, the origins of Valentine’s Day are some of the oldest and most unusual of all the modern holidays—and, you guessed it, none of them have anything to do with candied hearts.
The beginning of what is now Valentine’s Day goes back to a time when Rome was just a twinkle in Italy’s eye. Later becoming one of the largest empires in the world, ancient Rome was a civilization that began on the Italian peninsula as early at the 8th century B.C. and flourished into a global superpower. At that time, most people lived a pastoral life of rural concerns—taking care of livestock, planting crops, and abiding by the seasons. The availability of water and finding the greenest pasture for cattle were the main occupations of the mind, creating a bucolic simplicity focused on family, work, and survival. Having children and enjoying the act of procreation were cause for celebration, giving rise to a unique festival held on February 15th known as Lupercalia. This celebration was intended to ward off evil spirits, purify the land, and invite healthy fertility.
And this celebration of Lupercalia was soon blended with another Roman festival of purification called Februa which stems from the Roman month Februarius. It’s worth noting the significance of the month February and how the ancient Roman culture has dictated every aspect of our current annual calendar. If you have ever wondered why February seems like an odd little month, shorter than the rest, and filled with strange ides and a tint of darkness, it’s because the month used to sit at the end of the Roman calendar. The word Februarius is derived from februum, a thing used for ritual purification. Most of the observances during February were concerned with the dead or finding a sense of closure, reflecting the month’s original position at the end of the year. But in 46 B.C. when Julius Caesar was rearranging the world, he decided to move it to the beginning of the calendar year to spite the past king of Rome, Pompilius.
The festivals of Februa and Lupercalia were blended together in ancient times as a way to celebrate spring and the need for freshening up after a long winter—a tradition long embraced by the Sabines, the indigenous people of Rome. In Roman mythology, Lupercus was a god sometimes compared to the Greek god Pan, a horned creature of the forest with the ability to fertilize cattle and create prosperity. As one of the most ancient gods of Rome, a temple was erected for him on the auspicious day of February 15th and a great festival ensued. Priests would prance about nude with well-placed goatskins over their nether regions, burn the Vestal Virgins, and make animal sacrifices in the name of purity.
Lupercalia was not only a festival meant to honor purity but it was also a way to acknowledge Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Traditionally, the celebration was held near the cave of Lupercal on the palatine Hill where the famous twins were thought to have lived. It is guessed the festival continued for decades before the cave began to crumble in 44 B.C., and many say Augustus rebuilt it to keep the tradition going.
Beginning with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog, the festival went on to anoint two young men with blood on their foreheads which was then wiped off with wool soaked in milk. A feast followed, after which the young men cut strips of flesh called februa from the dead animals, dressed themselves in goat skins, and ran around the walls of the old city, striking whoever came near them with the strips of flesh. It was thought a whipping by the februa would increase fertility, prevent sterility, and ease the pain of childbirth, so young women and girls would playfully put themselves in the way of the young men to be lashed with the gift of impending motherhood.
Of course, any celebration by the ancient Romans involving fertility (or food, or gods, or the weather, or art) soon devolved into a sex party, and Lupercalia was no different. Drunk, naked, and excited, festival goers soon began a matchmaking lottery where young men drew the names of women from a jar, coupling with whoever they picked for the night—or longer if the match was agreeable.
As was the case with most pagan traditions, this practice soon gave way to scrutiny by those who found to process barbaric and baseless. Beginning with Mark Antony in 44 B.C. who refused to partake in the rites, the celebration of Lupercalia began to decline over the years, until it was finally outlawed in the 5th century by an increasing indoctrinated Christian Rome. The upper classes snubbed the festival, leaving it to the rabble, and Pope Gelasius I later “purified” Lupercalia further by giving it the Christian title of “Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary” in 494. Although historians disagree on precisely what happened to Lupercalia after this or if Valentine’s Day emerged as a result, there has always been a clear link between the customs of this fertility festival and the sentiments of what is now Valentine’s Day.
Other historians suggest our present holiday of love stems from not only Lupercalia but from an even darker event when the Roman Emperor Claudius II executed a man on February 14th sometime in the 3rd century. Although little is known about the identity of this man, he has come to be known as St. Valentine who died trying to convert the Romans to Christianity. According to the legend, St. Valentine was arguing the validity of Jesus with a pagan judge when he was challenged to prove his assertion by healing the sight of the judge’s blind daughter. If he succeeded, the judge would believe his professions and embrace the Christian religion. Placing his hands on the young girl’s eyes, St. Valentine restored her vision and the pagan judge was humbled, smashing all the idols in his home and agreeing to be baptized.
But not everyone in Rome was pleased with St. Valentine, and his efforts to convert people were often viewed with contempt, especially by Emporer Claudius II. Valentine had been imprisoned several times for marrying Christian couples and helping those who were being persecuted by the Roman government. These were not light crimes in the 3rd century, and Valentine finally went too far when he attempted to convert the Emporer himself. Claudius became enraged and sentenced Valentine to death, commanding him to renounce his Christianity or be beaten and beheaded. Of course, the pious Valentine would not acquiesce and was executed on February 14, 269. While in prison awaiting his fate, it is said Valentine fell in love with his jailor’s daughter who visited him from time to time, and before his death, it’s alleged he wrote her a letter expressing his love and signing it “From Your Valentine.” Although there are other variations of this legend, Valentine has continued to be a martyr in the Catholic Church over the years and was eventually verified as a real person when archeologists unearthed his Roman catacomb in the 19th century.
The holiday later took on it romantic side in the Middle Ages when it was embraced as a way to forget the ugliness of the past and the paganistic nature of the celebration. Although no one can be certain exactly where Valentine’s Day began, it is clearly a culmination of Lupercalia, the execution of St. Valentine, and the reinvention of the past by a romantic 16th-century populace. Later gaining popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe as a holiday of love, Chaucer and Shakespeare both romanticized the day in their works and reinforced the notion of traditional courtship. Today—far removed from the naked dancing, Roman spin the bottle, and grisly beheadings—Valentine’s Day has become a commercialized beast of rampant consumerism. Celebrated in America, Canada, Mexico, France, Australia, and the U.K., an estimated one billion Valentine’s cards are sent every year, making it the second most commemorated holiday. But despite these sentiments of love, what lurks behind these romantic customs are the past lives of the pagans who sought fertility and prosperity from the gods and the Christian framework that gave rise to a saint. And while this may seem relatively unimportant as we move forward in the 21st century, it’s worth noting how the holiday has changed with the times. From the days of wild festivals and impulsive executions to the obsession with courtly love and purity, we have emerged into the modern age with limited understanding of what we do and why it costs so much money.
And the rest is history.