Valentine's Day: Some love it, some hate it. But what's it all about? Is it just a capitalist ploy to persuade people to spend money on chocolates and flowers, or is it rooted in something much more ancient?
St. Valentine was martyred on February 14th AD 269, and the feast of St. Valentine was established in AD 496. There is a line of argument that suggests this feast day was established in order to supersede the pagan festival of Lupercalia, which was observed in Rome mid-February. This was a hugely important festival in the Roman calendar, attended by many, including the likes of Augustus and Julius Caesar.
So what does this have to do with Valentine's Day as we know it?
Lupercalia is considered by many to have been a festival associated with fertility. The rites of Lupercalia were held in the Lupercal, the cave in which Romans believed Romulus and Remus had been suckled by the she-wolf, and near this cave stood a sanctuary of Rumina, a Roman goddess who protected breastfeeding mothers. During the festival, young men known as Luperci ("brothers of the wolf"), would sacrifice goats and a dog and anoint the foreheads of their fellow Luperci with the sacrificial blood. The blood was then wiped away with a cloth soaked in milk, and a sacrificial feast followed.
After the feast, the Luperci would cut thongs from the flayed skin of the goats and run semi-naked with them around the Palatine hill, striking those whom they encountered on their way. It is believed as part of these festivities, that women from all strata of society would purposely get in their way, in the belief that being struck with these thongs would help increase their fertility and ease of childbirth.
So clearly this time of year has a longstanding tradition surrounding fertility. It makes sense, it is after all the time of year when seeds are just beginning to take root, the light is slowly returning and the promise of new life renewed. But how did we get from a fertility festival to cards and flowers?
Juno Februata is said to have been incorporated as an aspect of Lupercalia. According to this tradition, Roman girls would have their names written on billets, which would then be picked out of a draw by Roman boys. The paired up boys and girls would apparently take part in erotic games at various feasts and parties, and after the festival would remain an item for the rest of the year. In an effort to supersede these pagan rituals, the church supposedly replaced the girls' names in the box with those of saints. These were then drawn by both boys and girls, with the idea being that each child should emulate the life of the saint he or she had drawn. Though the church had banned the practice of pairing teenage boys and girls, young men apparently practised a watered down version, in which they would write romantic messages on small bits of paper, including St. Valentine's name, to send to the object of their desires. This is believed by some to be the root of the Valentine's Day tradition as we know it.
But is it really?
The case of the tradition surrounding Juno Februata is questionable at best. There is no mention of such a festival in Ovid's Fasti (a contemporaneous account of Roman holidays and the associated customs). The custom of the billets in relation to the Roman festival is seemingly an invention of the 18th century cleric, Alban Butler, which was then elaborated upon, without question, by other authors. It would seem the tradition of sending Valentine's cards has no root in ancient history after all.
So what about Lupercalia? There was indeed such a festival, and certainly it was a celebration of fertility, as are many pagan festivals. The truth is, however, that the feast day of St. Valentine did not come to be associated with romance or love until the 14th century. For this, we have Chaucer to thank:
"For this was on St. Valentine's Day
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate"
Several other medieval poets also wrote about birds finding their mates on Valentine's Day. It seems likely that this is due to the time of year; as I have previously mentioned, February (Imbolc) sees the promise of new life return after the darkness of Yule. It seems then, that the romantic traditions surrounding Valentine's Day stem from the poetic themes of courtly love made popular in the middle ages, and Valentine's cards didn't actually become popular till the 18th century. What some unquestionably attribute to ancient pagan traditions, actually springs from a relatively recent English tradition, which in time spread through much of the English-speaking world.
So I guess that means Valentine's Day is more of a capitalist ploy than anything else then. You can argue that people shouldn't need a special day to show their love for one another, and you'd be right. But hey, I'm not about to snub a free box of chocolates, are you?