A saint, a goat, a few pagan traditions led to modern Valentine's Day
As anyone with a child, a spouse, a lover, classmates, a girlfriend/boyfriend, or none of the above knows, Valentine’s Day is Saturday.
What with the $75-per-dozen roses and the inundation of diamond, chocolate and Victoria’s Secret ads, it’s easy for a cynic to believe that Valentine’s Day was a creation of Madison Avenue, one of those “made-up holidays” created by greeting card companies to generate business in an otherwise dull time of year.
Not true. While the Greeting Card Association of America does admit that Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas in the volume of cards sent (an estimated 150 million valentines are expected to be purchased this year), they refuse to take credit for the creation of the day itself.
That honor goes to the Catholic Church, which, as it did on several occasions, combined some existing pagan rituals with some newer Christian ones. Throw in a saint, a goat, a few miscellaneous legends and traditions, and, voilá — Valentine’s Day!
Pope Gelasius first declared Feb. 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day in 498 A.D. But long before then, Romans had been celebrating the official beginning of spring with all of its attendant fertility rites in mid-February.
The Lupercalia Festival in ancient Rome was dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.
It is said that priests who were members of the order of Luperci gathered at the entrance of a cave believed to have been the place where the infants Romulus and Remus were cared for by a she-wolf. A goat was sacrificed for fertility and a dog for purification.
The hide of the goat was sliced into strips that were then dipped in blood. Men then took to the streets, gently slapping women and fields of crops with the bloody goat hide strips. This was believed to make both women and fields fertile.
Later in the day, the names of all the women in town were placed in an urn, and the bachelors would choose a name and be paired with that woman for the following year.
While today the romance involved in these gestures is a bit hard to discern, February nevertheless has been seen as a month for romance since ancient times.
In France and England, it was widely believed that birds began their mating season in mid-February (some even say birds who mate for life choose their mate on Feb. 14).
Valentine himself is often believed to have been a romantic at heart, even though he was a priest. He lived in Rome under the rule of the emperor Claudius II, who outlawed marriage because he believed that single men made better soldiers.
Valentine believed this decree to be unjust, and continued to wed young lovers until he was discovered, jailed, and eventually put to death for his crime.
One legend says that Valentine fell in love with the daughter of his jailer, and sent her a letter, signed “from your Valentine,” just before he was put to death. And so was born the first “valentine.”
The oldest known valentine still in existence was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt.
Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated in Great Britain around the 17th century. By the mid-18th century, it was common for good friends and lovers to exchange small tokens and notes on Valentine’s Day. Ready-made cards first appeared at the end of the 1700s.
Americans also began exchanging valentines in the early 1700s. It was not until 1840 that Esther A. Howland became the first person to sell mass-produced valentines in this country.
Today, approximately 85% of all valentines cards are purchased by women. In addition to the United States, the holiday is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Some would argue that Valentine’s Day, despite being created to honor a legitimate saint, is still a scam perpetrated by the multi-billion-dollar card industry.
Most would agree, however, that today’s practices are still better than getting slapped with a bloody strip of goat hide.