From the past to the present

As with most Christian holidays, Valentine’s Day has its origins in a pagan fertility rite that occurs in mid-February, which was called Lupercalia in the Roman Calendar.

The festival of Lupercalia was simply about sex and fertility and had nothing to do with wooing young girls with trite tokens or romance. Lupa was the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Lupercalia, or the “Wolf Festival,” was celebrated in honor of her primal maternity, as the purifier and provider of life for the Roman civilization.

The festival began with a sacrifice of two male goats and a dog by the Luperci or the flamen dialis, who were important priest-like figures in the Roman religion. This was followed by two chosen young Luperci being anointed at the altar with the sacrificial blood and milk. A carnal feast followed where the Luperci cut slaps of skin from victims and dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats to imitate Lupa.

They ran around the old Palatine city with the thongs of skin in their hands and struck people passing them by. They then ritualistically slapped young women with the thongs of meat to promote fertility in the spring to come.

Plutarch described in the Life of Caesar that “At this time many of the noble youths and magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery and the barren to pregnancy.”

In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I attempted to Christianize the festival by banning Lupercalia and choosing Feb. 14 as a less sexually-charged festival called Saint Valentine’s Day. There were numerous Christian martyrs canonized as Valentine, and, until 1969, the Catholic Church formally recognized 11 Valentine’s Days.

One story takes place in the third century CE, when the priest Valentine secretly performed marriage ceremonies for young men. Roman Emperor Claudius II allegedly ordered his men to stay single, because he believed that married and lovesick men made poor soldiers. When Claudius discovered that Valentine was secretly wedding couples, Valentine was arrested and thrown into jail. Legend has it that the lovers he had married would come and visit him, passing him notes and flowers through his cellar door.

While lying in condemnation, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, who was blind. On the day of his execution, Valentine wrote a love letter to the young girl and signed it “from your Valentine.” Upon receiving the letter, the young girl’s vision was miraculously restored so she could read the love note.

A Saint Valentine from Belarus was also rumored to be the founder of Valentine’s Day cards. This saint was rejected by his mistress and the pain of his unrequited love led him to commit suicide. In a fit of desperation, he took a knife to his chest and sent the still-beating heart to the mistress as a token of his undying love. It was told that the heart never stopped beating. Thus, lovers send each other heart shaped cards, symbolic of Valentine’s overwhelming passion and suffering caused by love.

Modern Valentine’s Day has been far removed from these traditions. Card makers and mass marketers reel in about $14 billion annually on the holiday. Americans purchase 180 million roses on Valentine’s Day and spend $160 million on candy and chocolates.

So, if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the destructive pressures of commercial Valentine’s rituals, perhaps you could instead celebrate Lupa and fertility. At least then you’ll be honoring love and not money.