Write a love letter, buy some flowers, make a dinner reservation—Valentine’s Day will soon be upon us. In this era of chronic bad news, people are more excited than ever to snag some romance and a “feel-good” moment regardless of the holiday’s bastardized lineage. Most folks have no clue why Valentine’s Day is even a thing or if it’s even related to history—all they know is consumerism is alive and well in America, and heart-shaped chocolates really taste the same as square ones. Rebels smirk dismissively at the blatant absurdity of it all, while school children color themselves silly making sure no one misses out on the chance to feel loved. It is a holiday of inequality, embraced on many levels and truly honored on none.
But the truth of Valentine’s Day is considerably more interesting than we have been led to believe—worth far more than the corny cards and clanging diamond ring commercials heralding its arrival—with connections to love’s dark cousins named lust, fertility, and death. In America, the vast majority of holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas—all date back to a time in history when the human struggle for basic understanding relied greatly on the divine fictions of religion. Faith gave people the ability to explain away the massive inequities they found and the constant pain they seemed to endure. But it also gave them license to commit unspeakable acts against those they frowned upon, especially if it meant keeping their dominion intact and preserving the word of God as they saw it. And because these moments—the crucifixion of Christ, the genocide of the Native Americans, and the loss of pagan ways—all left such a lasting mark on the timeline, they were carried through the centuries as gossamer memories, rubbed thin by a polite refurbishing of the truth. And sweet Valentine’s Day is no exception—whitewashed to hide the darkness, scrubbed clean of all filth, and perfumed over the centuries to hide the reeking mess of its birth.
Looking back through history, the first sign of Valentine’s Day began innocently enough as a celebration of good, old-fashioned sex. Back in ancient Rome during the 8th century, many people lived a quiet, pastoral life with rural concerns like caring for farms, planting crops, and abiding by the season’s call. 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 was always recommended, which made the procreation process both personally and pragmatically pleasing. Understandably, it was considered such a delightful situation, it gave rise to the festival of Lupercalia, an annual celebration held on February 15th. In addition to acknowledging the joy of fornication, the event was intended to ward off evil spirits, purify the land, and invite healthy fertility for the Roman people.
In a fine pagan marriage, Lupercalia eventually blended with another Roman tradition called Februa, which was so ancient, it was only recalled as a time of “purging” some time in February. Together, the two formed a delightful spring holiday and a chance for everyone to lighten the spirit of a long winter—there might just be love on the horizon. The indigenous Sabines had long embraced this type of tradition through the image of Lupercus, the Roman god who protected flocks, much like the Greek Pan who could fertilize cattle and manifest prosperity. Because he was one of Rome’s oldest and most revered gods, a temple was erected for him on the auspicious day of February 15th, after which 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 also celebrated the she-wolf Lupa, who suckled the famous founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus when they were dying infants in the wilderness. The celebration was traditionally held near the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine Hill, where the famous twins were thought to have lived until it crumbled in 44 BCE. Many believe Emperor Augustus rebuilt it sometime later to keep the elaborate tradition going. After a substantial animal sacrifice, two young men would be anointed by a blood-tipped knife upon their forehead, which was then wiped off with wool soaked in milk. A feast then followed, after which the young men cut strips of flesh called februa from the dead animals, dressed up in goatskins, and ran around the walls of the old city, striking whoever came near them with the strips of flesh. This symbolic whipping was thought to increase fertility, prevent sterility, and ease the pain of childbirth, so young women and girls would playfully “fall” in front of the animated young men who would happily “lash” them with the gift of impending motherhood—a promise they might find ways to keep.
Because this celebration managed to combine some pagan heavy hitters like fertility, fornication, and fear, the festivities often devolved into drunken, sexed-up brawls with too many naked, over excited people in one place. So to keep themselves busy, a matchmaking game was invented where men pulled a woman’s name from a jar, at which point the two were expected to couple up for the night—or longer if the match was agreeable. As was the case with most pagan traditions, this practice was eventually deemed barbaric and baseless by disapproving parties, including the famous Mark Antony who refused to acknowledge Lupercalia in 44 BCE. At this point, the tradition went into some decline and was finally outlawed altogether in the 5th century by an increasingly indoctrinated Christian Rome. The upper-class nobles snubbed the festival, leaving it to the rabble, and Pope Gelasius later “purified” Lupercalia further by giving it the overzealous and painfully upright Christian title “Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary” in 494 CE. Sexy lust had been successfully domesticated into moral rhetoric. And although historians disagree on precisely what happened to Lupercalia after this shift, or if Valentine’s Day emerged as a result, the link between this age-old fertility festival and the remnant sentiments we see today are undeniable.
Other historians have suggested the origins of Valentine’s Day were far shadier than the wonton nudity of Lupercalia and likely connected more to Rome’s political dramas than its social and emotional ones. Sometime in the 3rd century, Emperor Claudius II executed an unidentified man on February 14th for trying to convert Romans to Christianity, a man who has since come to be known as St. Valentine. 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 returning the gift of sight to the judge’s blind daughter. If he succeeded, the judge would believe him wholeheartedly and embrace the Christian religion without question. 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 signing up for immediate baptism.
But not everyone in Rome was pleased with St. Valentine’s miracle, and his efforts to convert the people were often viewed with contempt, especially by Emperor Claudius II. Sanctimonious sermons could really put a damper on a perfectly good orgy. Valentine had been imprisoned several times for marrying Christian couples and helping those who were being persecuted by the Roman government, so he did have a bit of a criminal reputation.These were not light crimes in the 3rd century, and they were made worse by Valentine’s decision to defy “Claudius the Cruel” in other ways. The Empire was embroiled in several bloody campaigns at the time, but many of the virile young men of Rome were more interested in shagging their women than picking up a sword and fighting in the army. So as a solution, Claudius temporarily banned marriage in Rome, outraging many of the people and spurring soft-hearted Valentine to conduct them in secret.
Claudius was enraged by Valentine’s devious actions and commanded him to renounce his Christianity or suffer the consequences. Of course, the pious Valentine could never acquiesce to such a demand, and so he was sentenced to a public beating with clubs followed by decapitation. 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.” And on February 14, 269 CE, Valentine’s death sentence was carried out. Although there are other variations of this legend, it is believed Valentine was sainted after his death, as is proven through the Catholic veneration of his martyrdom. And when archeologists unearthed a Roman catacomb with his name in the 19th century, he was finally verified as a real historical figure.
Sadly, the details of dear Valentine’s beheading did not stand the test of time, and they were soon forgotten as folks from the Middle Ages began to embrace the holiday in favor of a more cheerful celebration. While historians and experts still pick and paw at the muddled evolution of Valentine’s Day, most agree it is some kind of hybridized animal with the head of St. Valentine, the reproductive organs of Lupercalia, and the heart of an overly amorous 16th-century populace.
Later gaining some interest throughout Britain and the rest of Europe as a holiday of love, Chaucer and Shakespeare both romanticized it in their works, reinforcing the notion of traditional courtship. Today, it is celebrated in America, Canada, Mexico, France, Australia, and the U.K., and an estimated one billion Valentine’s cards are sent every year, making it the second most commemorated holiday. No longer venerated for its nudity, promiscuity, random hookups, secret marriages, and grisly beheadings, the holiday has devolved into little more than pointless excuse to buy something red.
But what is worth remembering, besides these sappy sentiments of love, are the darkly erotic customs of the pagans who sought fertility and prosperity from the gods and the never-ending Christian search for purity that gave rise to a saint. And as we move into the 21st century, it’s also worth remembering that unlike the ancient revelers of the past, we have almost no understanding of what we are celebrating.
And the rest is history.