Editorial: The history behind 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 this Sunday.

What with $75/dozen roses and the inundation of gift 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. 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 and a goat, 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 in mid-February.

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 goathide 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.

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.”

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 goathide. — K.D.