Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day and lots of you will be receiving bouquets of roses and planning romantic dinners (not me- my husband knows I have no time for the gross commercialism that is Valentine’s Day and is under pain of divorce not to buy me flowers – and I mean it), however, it would seem that Valentine’s Day has always had a lot more to it than hearts and flowers. In fact, it originates from an ancient pagan ritual that was celebrated for years before anyone had heard of Valentine.
In Rome, many centuries ago, the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of February. On the 14th of February, a day devoted to Juno, queen of the gods and patron of marriage, young women would place their names on slips of paper put into jars. The young men would pick out a name and the two would spend Lupercalia together.
Lupercalia itself was a strange festival. It was held in honour of the gods Lupercus and Faunus and the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. The ritual began at the cave where Lupa the wolf was reputed to have suckled Romulus and Remus. A goat (fertility) and a dog (protection) would be sacrificed, and the goat flayed. Men would then run through the streets whipping women and crops with this flayed hide, in a bid to encourage fertility and to ease pain in any future childbirth. Not quite as romantic as a candlelit dinner, but this was ancient Rome.
So how did this rather wild sounding festival become the St Valentine’s Day of today? The rise of Christianity saw Pope Gelasius officially condemn the pagan festival, banning it at the end of the fifth Century. He declared that 14th February be St Valentine’s day. Although no-one really knows who this Valentine was, he is possibly an amalgamation of two different men. During the reign of Emperor Claudius, it was decreed that all marriages be stopped. A priest called Valentine was imprisoned for continuing to perform marriage ceremonies. In the 3rd Century A.D. another Valentine was imprisoned for helping Christians. He allegedly fell in love with the daughter of his jailer and cured her of blindness. This good deed did him no good whatsoever, as he was executed on 14th February 289 A.D. These two Valentines may be the ones at the heart of Valentine’s Day (sorry!).
Even the tradition of young women placing their names into a jar to be picked by a man was incorporated into this new celebration – with one rather huge difference. The girl’s names were replaced by those of Saints; each man vowing to emulate the life of the saint whose name he picked for the coming year. Not quite as romantic as the original really.
So, like many other feast days and holidays, Valentine’s Day has its roots in something far from saintly. Still, whether you object to the commercialism or not, it’s as good a day as any other to tell someone you love them!