Valentines Day is one
of the most enigmatic of holidays, having
appeared in many forms. But all
“Valentine’s Days” have drawn suspicion.
In fact, after hundreds of years of attempted
reform, Christian observance came to an end
when the Catholic Church purged St.
Valentine’s Day from its calendar in 1969.
Still, the holiday continues
to inspire an annual avalanche of cards, not
to mention the mass consumption of chocolates,
flowers and sometimes, pricier presents. What
do we commemorate when we celebrate
- Running with the Wolves
If you’ve ever researched
the history of Valentines Day, you know it
began with wolves and ancient Spring magic.
The earliest instance we know of starts with
the tough old shepherds and founders of Rome
who feared and respected the wolves that
preyed on their flocks. Once a year, they held
sacrifices to Lupercus, the god of shepherds,
enemy of wolves, and friend of dogs. Other
shepherds sacrificed to Faunus, who also
protected shepherds but was part goat.
The celebration, called
Lupercalia, was held during early spring,
which since time immemorial has been a season
for purification. All the ancients saw that in
the winter, the earth fell quiet and covered
itself in white. Late winter and early spring
was the time for human purification also, to
be followed closely by fertility magic.
- Something Old, Something
Rome still celebrated
Lupercalia after it had matured and become a
great republic. In fact, all civic life came
to a halt for the festival.
Because of the Remus and
Romulus legend, Lupercalia enjoyed great
respect. Sons of noblemen were appointed to be
Lupercalian priests, or luperci, and tasked
with a number of duties. Each year they
sacrified a dog (for Lupercal) and a goat (for
Faunus) at the bottom of a cave at Palantine
Hill. Wearing nothing but goat hide, they cut
thongs from the skin and ran the perimeter of
“old Rome,” slapping women with the bloody
strips. Women put themselves forward for this,
meaning to be purified and made fertile. (Our
month of February, Febrarius, means “month
of purification.”) Afterward, Rome indulged
in a love lottery in which young men drew
young women’s names from a jar and became
their “partners” for a time.
Eventually, the Roman
upper-crust grew too refined to feel at ease
with Lupercalia. Cicero sniffed that the
A certain wild association
of Lupercalian brothers, both plainly pastoral
and savage, whose rustic alliance was formed
before civilization and laws.
A certain politician made
sport of Lupercalia's anachronistic air by
wearing his luperci skin to work and haranging
his fellow senators.
Eventually, Lupercalia began
to fall out of favor, although Augustus
revived it for a time in a fit of national
- The Church Triumphant
The church is sometimes
vilified for its Lupercalian edits. It found
the love lottery unacceptable, as well as the
luperci. But rather than ban the fete
outright, it tried assimilation.
First, the love lottery was
replaced with a high-minded version, where
each man drew a saint instead of a girl and
was invited to emulate that saint throughout
the year. (This custom is sometimes observed
today). Then the purification aspect was
re-clothed in a feast of the Purification of
the Virgin Mary, scheduled for early February.
As for fertility magic, the church dodged this
altogether, although one can see traces of the
purifying and “greening” impulse in the
spirit and chapel decorations of Lent.
As for the fourteenth of
February, the church dedicated the day to the
Christian martyr, Valentine. Contrary to the
sugared rumors that have sprung up around him
(or more accurately, them -- there were
several St. Valentines), the saint almost
certainly had nothing to do with love or
- Knights in Shining Armor
Lupercalia had been well and
truly squelched in Rome. But to the west and
north, where the Age of Chivalry triumphed,
Europeans could not let the tradition molder
and with childlike zest, revived it. The
English cast off the papal practice of drawing
saints, but their new notions of chivalric
love led to a more innocent type of boy/girl
lottery than Rome had ever seen. Young girls
drew on the power of dream pillows -- filled
or pinned with aromatics like bay leaves or
lavender -- to catch a glimpse of their future
mates. Small children dressed in adult clothes
and roamed the streets, gently mocking the
“new” fascination with love:
"Good morning to you,
Curl your locks as I do mine--
Two before and three behind.
Good morning to you, valentine."
Unlike the serious
Lupercalian business of patriotism and the
appeasement of gods, this kinder, gentler
Valentine’s day spoke of a young person’s
coming-of-age. Chivalry’s themes of chaste
love and longing played major roles.
Hail, Bishop Valentine!
Whose day this is
All the air is thy diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners … wrote
The world grows old over and
over again, and in England, Valentine’s Day
aged with it. The tradition of laying out for
gifts took hold, with the height of luxurious
gifting possibly reaching its height around
Restoration England. Lords gave Ladies rings
and brooches of staggering worth, and even
Samuel Pepys (not a famous romantic) recorded
having given his wife “a Turkey-stone set
with diamonds.” She was grateful, and as he
noted, “I am glad of it, for it is fit the
wretch should have something to content
- Initially Resistant
America long withstood Europe’s festivities,
fending off fairies, maypoles, effigy-burning
and even Valentine’s Day. Women were scarce
in the harsh days of the nation’s dawn, and
public displays of affection were outlawed in
any case. It wasn’t until the Civil War that
the country relented: long, lonely rifts in
families endeared the saint to them at last.
Prior to the war, elaborate commercial
valentines (including “mechanical” types)
had begun to flood the market and grow more
Of course, this
uncharacteristic flood of romance could not go
unchecked, and the widespread embrace of
valentines was closely followed by the
“vinegar” valentine, a comic and
sometimes, caustic type.
When the war ended, and
Americans crept into the light of
Reconstruction, they found a freshly
industrialized nation. Along with it came a
transcontinental railroad, typewriters, an
internal combustion engine, and -- most
importantly for Valentine’s Day --
heart-shaped boxes full of commercial
chocolates (a gimmick invented by the Cadbury
brothers during the 1860s). Although fine
diamonds and jewelry never quite became the
norm among Americans, the standard
“recipe” of cards, flowers, and a
heart-shaped box of chocolates had been carved
in the national psyche. Now Valentine’s Day
is only second to Christmas in number of cards
bought and sent.
Blake Kritzberg is a
copywriter, web designer, and proprietor of http://www.e-free-greeting-card.com.
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