Oh boy oh boy…
I intended to post yesterday, but I became swept up in a thousand other things. Since too many recent holidays have passed without sharing a bit of history, I couldn’t resist pulling something together.
To be honest, Valentines’ Day has always seemed slightly… odd. Love is the cherished mantra of the day; a plethora of pink and red dazzle store shelves; flowers are bought in the dozens; and chocolate is gleefully venerated. It’s usually time to rent a movie, curl up on the couch- or bed- with fuzzy blankets, and think of cupids or cute puppies.
Some people love Valentines’ Day and others despise it (both responses, in my opinion, are heavily influenced by social constructs- but that is a rant for a different day), I think that I sit somewhere in the middle.
If you have spent time reading any number of articles about the origins of many common holidays celebrated in the 20th century, you may have noticed that the church is an expert at stealing other cultures’ ideas.
Before trying to search for facts, a disclaimer is necessary: no one knows exactly where Valentines’ Day comes from. Much of what I am mentioning is based off of speculation done by historians for decades.
Let’s scurry though a bit of ancient history: Christianity began as an offshoot of Judaism (which had already been established as a monotheistic religion for thousands of years); eventually, it spread to Rome, where it became the dominant religion in the 4th century CE.
Before paganism was outlawed in Rome, the local pantheon of gods looked incredibly similar to those of ancient Greece. This is where vanquished and stolen ideas come in: Valentines’ Day appears to tie back to the Lupercalia festival annually held in Rome between the 13th and 15 of February.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar anyone?
While the connection between Valentines’ Day and Lupercalia is debatable, it seems probable enough: Lupercalia was held at the Lupercal (at the edge of the Palatine hill, where Romulus and Remus were said to be raised by a wolf) for the Roman god of shepherds and fertility: Lupercus.
Because this was ancient Rome, someone was scarified, in this case, the someones were goats and dogs. Skipping over a few details… a procession was held; young, nude men slapped women and crops within reach, with strips of goatskin (they believed that being struck by a runner of the Lupercal would bring fertility); drunkenness was rife; and laughter was the medicine of the day.
Roman paganism was slowly buried by the adamant dislike of Christians; no one knows exactly what happened to Lupercalia, until the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius seems to have moved a new holiday honoring Saint Valentine (which St. Valentine is still a matter of debate) to the 14th of February.
According to most Christian traditions: St. Valentine defied Claudius II by marrying young couples when the emperor forbid it. The story ends with St. Valentine’s execution– which made him a martyr.
However… everything previously mentioned must be taken with a salty glass of suspicion.
Valentines’ Day does not appear to have been celebrated until the Middle Ages– the oldest surviving valentines’ day card was sent from the Tower of London by Charles, the Duke of Orleans in 1415. Most seem to agree that valentines’ day become a full holiday because of Chaucer: according to Jack B. Oruch, Chaucer portrayed the 14th of February as a day of love because of its connotations with spring, whether or not he pulled on the strings of an existing holiday is unknown; if he did, the holiday in question was probably one of the numerous saint days celebrated during february.
While a February 14th feast was mentioned in the Charter of the Court of Love (issued in 1400), Valentines’ Day did not truly become popular until the 17th century, in England. Fast forward a century: Valentines’ Day was filled with love letters and , soon, love letters became postcards with the advent of a functioning mail system. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began mass-producing valentines in the US, similar endeavors occurred in England, and- well… I think we can guess where the holiday has traveled there.
I hope all of you are having a wonderful day!
And I promise to be back very, very soon.