So, a hunt for the origins of Valentine’s Day produces a variety of conflicting stories. Allow me to share my findings. Everyone seems to agree that centuries before Valentine was ever born, a festival called Lupercalia was celebrated annually. Back in the 700’s BC, Rome was but a shepherd settlement and hungry packs of wolves prowling through nearby woods were the greatest threat to the community. In mid-February the settlers held a purification and fertility festival, most probably honoring the pastoral deity, Lupercus. (Opinions vary here, but the festival is so old that even around the time of Christ, people argued about which god was being honored.) The celebration was said to ensure the safety and fertility of flocks, fields and people. Goats were sacrificed, blood was smeared on foreheads of a chosen few. Details here are specific: the blood was wiped with wool dipped in milk at which point the young men were required to laugh. Finally the priests (some say the besmeared young men), known as the luperci, ran around Palatine Hill and through the streets of Rome. Using whips fashioned out of strips of the sacrificed goat hide (called februa which comes from the Latin februare, “to purify,” which also gives us the month’s name), they lashed at people in their way. The young married women would push through the crowds for the privilege of being hit with the strap, thus ensuring fertility.
Apparently there was name-drawing too. Young women would put their names into an urn and the men would pick, paying special attention to the woman whose name he’d chosen. How far that attention went, well, let’s just say it was a time for “anything goes.”
This festival connects with the story of Saint Valentine in the third century AD, during the rule of Claudius II, who prohibited marriage for his soldiers, wanting them free of any emotional attachment. Valentine was a humble Christian priest who performed clandestine marriage ceremonies for lovestruck soldiers. He was caught, jailed and finally beheaded on the eve of Lupercalia around 269 AD. He was canonized roughly 200 years later. (History shows us that there was a second Valentine, Bishop of Interamna, who was also martyred around the same time, but now some speculate that it was the same person. We’ll just ignore the inconsistency here.)
When choosing holy days, the Christians were known to place them close to pagan festivals, a painless way to ease Christianity into Roman life and displace the original event. St. Valentine’s Day was set for the day before Lupercalia and Christian leaders began to downplay the usual raucous debauchery associated with Lupercalia. As the years passed, the februa flogging disappeared while the name-picking stayed. Eventually, the pagan revelry was banned and only St. Valentine’s Day remained.
A third variable contributes to the way that we now celebrate the day. Medieval Europeans believed that birds chose their mates around February 14th, as chronicled by Chaucer in the 1300’s who wrote, “For this was on seynt Valentynes day, whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.” Young men therefore chose that day to exchange notes with sweethearts. History tells us that the first paper valentine was constructed in the 1500’s. Shortly thereafter, Hallmark was born and has pretty much cornered the market on sentiment since.
In truth, these days, I like my Valentine’s Day messages to be less syrup and more chuckle-worthy. Perhaps this comes from sharing a household with a teen boy. And so, as a Valentine to my son (and my husband can join us for the laughs), I present the tackiest/funniest Valentine’s Day images of the day, courtesy of CollegeHumor.com (http://www.collegehumor.com)
Tasteless, offensive, crass… ah well. There you have it. For those of you now harboring a bad taste in your mouth, let me end with something… sweeter. And sincere wishes for a Happy Valentine’s Day.