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My, That’s Bloody: The History Of Valentine’s Day

The festival of love has a dark origin story…

By Eleanor Tremeer

Roman Roots

As with many festivals, there’s a Roman connection to Valentine’s Day. The pastoral festival of Lupercalia coincides with the date of Valentine’s Day, as it was celebrated from February 13th – 15th. But it’s not just the calendar date that these two festivals have in common.

Lupercalia was all about purification and fertility. And technically, it predates Rome itself — historians have connected Lupercalia to the Greek festival of Lykaia

Wild and lusty, Lupercalia was all about purification and fertility. And technically, it predates Rome itself — historians have connected Lupercalia to the Greek festival of Lykaia, and also found linguistic roots in Etruscan and Sabine culture. Again, this multiple-root origin is common for most folk festivals. But I digress. Back to the lusty wild rites.

According to what contemporary sources remain, the Lupercalian rites concerned animal sacrifice and mad, nude marathons. Priests of the Lupercal, assisted by the Vestal Virgins, would cut strips of hide from sacrificed animals, strip themselves naked, then run through the town, lashing these leather ribbons about.

Women would join the festivities, deliberately running into the path of the priests in order to be struck by them, and thus blessed with fertility. This rite was considered a purging, bringing new life to the city fresh for spring. Other accounts of Lupercalia talk of these women and men coupling up after a lots were drawn.

If you watch Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (which, I wouldn’t blame you, it’s damn good trash TV), you’ll remember that this show’s depiction of the festival focused on the wild run and subsequent coupling… and let’s just forget that whole wolf familiar murder thing because that was weird.


The Story Of St Valentine

But what about Valentine himself? You may have heard some folk tales about this figure, and how the festival got its name… but how truthful these tales are is unfortunately highly suspect.

There were actually several saints named Valentine, all of whom are loosely celebrated on Valentine’s Day. The most popular of these saints is Valentine of Rome, who was executed by Emperor Claudius II in the year 270 AD. Valentine was a Christian priest (or bishop — again, accounts vary) who ministered to the Christians who were persecuted under Roman rule.

According to one legend, when imprisoned by Claudius, Valentine cured the sight of his jailor’s daughter — and thus the jailor’s whole family came to believe in God. Some stories say that Valentine fell in love with the daughter, leaving her a romantic declaration signed “from your Valentine”. Which… yeah. That’s pretty obviously an embellishment designed to connect the festival’s origin to the idea of romantic love.

Another legend has it that Valentine of Rome married Roman soldiers to their sweethearts, as Claudius was recruiting for an army — but had forbad any soldiers from marrying. This gives Valentine a revolutionary spirit, as by marrying these soldiers he was effectively getting them out of military service. The soldiers would, the legend claims, carry paper hearts to show their loyalty to their wives… and to God.

Unfortunately, this has been effectively debunked. Historians point out that there was no such law enacted by Claudius at that time, and there’s no historical evidence to support the folk tale. In fact, very little is known about Valentine of Rome — and other saints who share his name — other than the fact that he was martyred on February 14th. Probably. Actually even that is pretty suspect.


Modern Valentine’s Day

So wait, considering the lack of evidence connecting Valentine to this date in the calendar — and even to the idea of romantic love — how did we get Valentine’s Day?

Well, as with many festivals, you can thank the Church for that. In the 5th century, Pope Galasius I canonised Valentine of Rome, and February 14th was declared Valentine’s official saint’s day. Interestingly, Lupercalia was still being practiced at this time, which Galasius did not appreciate. There are records of him scolding the Roman senate for still practicing these pagan rites. This has led some to speculate that Galasius used Valentine’s Day to divert this festival to Christianity, essentially rebranding it as a saint’s day and watering down the festivities to make them distinctly less wild and animal sacrifice-y. Historians still argue about whether this was the case. Props to Galasius I for still keeping us guessing.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Valentine’s Day became associated with romantic love — and that’s when a lot of the previously mentioned legends about St Valentine started circulating. As this was a folk festival, it’s difficult to say how and why Valentine’s Day became about love. Historians have speculated, based on regional folk customs, that this is largely connected to the start of Spring, and therefore the mating season of various animals. Geoffrey Chaucer recorded this in 1375 with a poem that talked about the saint’s day, associating it with birds mating.

It’s around this time that people began exchanging “Valentines”, ie: love letters to paramores, anonymously or otherwise. These early Valentines seem to be connected to the tradition of “courtly love”, a form of wooing that was practiced by the knightly and ruling classes of Europe. As time went on, this custom became more widespread — and it was so popular that by the time greetings card companies were being established in the industrial revolution, this was a very quick and easy festival to capitalise on. Of course, postal services had already latched onto the custom, offering anonymous Valentine deliveries, and in 1863 Cadbury’s sold chocolates in heart-shaped boxes for the holiday.

And there you have it! The history of Valentine’s Day, from its bloody Lupercalian roots to its current iteration as a product-selling machine. It’s nice to know that even a holiday as commercial as Valentine’s Day still has weird, wild, and wonderful folk tradition origins. So the next time you see a cheesy card, remember that all this was started by a bunch of dudes running naked through the town waving animal skins. Ah, those were the days.


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