Call me cynical, but I never had the best relationship with holidays–Valentine's Day included. I've had to come to terms with the fact that festivity is not a part of my construct. In fact, it'd be extremely fitting to label me a contemporary Scrooge.
Back in my high school days, my friends and peers would willingly dress up for all the themed spirit week days–sports day, 80s days, superhero day, tie-dye day. Then there's me wearing my everyday, non-themed jeans, t-shirts, and Converse. My best friend always poked fun at me when I wore Pink leggings during pajama day (the only bed wear I owned were enlarged, permanently stained t-shirts and raggedy jogging pants).
My lack of enthusiasm for anything celebratory is most likely due to the unshakable feeling that underlying all these festivities is capitalism, a profit made off of the sometimes obligatory celebration of the consumer (aside: I also came across vintage Valentine's Day cards for the first time and found some extremely weird designs playing to racial and sexist attitudes and stereotypes or just downright weird behavior. Imagine if any of these were released in today's time. It would a social media nuclear explosion).
I don't mean to impress dark spins on these holidays; it's just my nature which is why I commend those that upkeep positive dispositions and partake in traditions, themed desserts and sharable appetizers, festive earrings, headgear, gift-giving, the whole shebang.
While celebrations often fail to engage me during the holidays, I wondered if maybe the backstories, the mysterious origins of these holidays would instead. Cue the Google search engine!
Digging deeper into the origination of Valentine's Day specifically, uncovered stories rooted in Catholic and Roman traditions that, in the end, did nothing to remove my cynicism for the holiday. However, the history of Valentine's Day raises new mysteries ready for exploration.
Pagan Festivals and Love Lotteries
On February 15th, Romans took part in the ancient festival of Lupercalia; a fertility festival supervised by a troupe of priests called Luperci and held in the honor of the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
Lupercalia was conducted to promote agriculture and familial fertility, ward off evil spirits, and purify the city.
Within sacred caves, Lupercalia celebrators gathered; they sacrificed goats for fertility and dogs for purification. Furthermore, the goat hide was cut into strips, dipped in sacrificial blood, and with this tool in hand, used to slap both women and crops, a practice said to promote fertility for the coming year.
That same day, all the single ladies would enter their names to a matchmaking lottery from which single men draw names, deciding which pairs will spend the rest of the festival together (one could only guess how they'd chose to spend that time, wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Following these pairings, many couples got married.
The Valentine's Day we have today is admittedly a more toned-down version of the previous Roman traditions for I have never been slapped with bloody goat hide. Praise the powers that be! However, it's theorized that our current Valentine's is a Christian cover-up of the more scandalous Roman tradition.
That definitely appears to be the intention of pope St. Gelasius I, who suppressed the celebration of Lupercalia and modified the holiday to a feast of the Purification.
Valentine's Day received its name from various saints, all who died on February 14th and shared the name of Valentine or Valentinus. The lives of these saints were recorded in a collection entitled Acta Sanctorum by an organization of Belgian monks called Bollandists who were dedicated to excavating saintly histories (although they often were only able to recover the saints' name and date of death).
They did so by examining manuscript archives from around the globe. One volume of their written records contains information surrounding February 14th.
In these records, we find that the first Valentine died along with 24 soldiers in Africa.
The following two Valentines were the victims of martyrdom and were executed during the reign of 3rd century Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. In the times of Emperor Gothicus' reign, it was common to persecute Christians.
One of the two Valentines was, in fact, a Roman priest named Valentinus who was ultimately beheaded after attempting religious conversion as well as curing an aristocrat's daughter's blindness through Christian mysticism (after placing his hands on the young woman's eyes and a brief plea to God, the daughter was no longer blind). Apparently he also signed letters addressed "from your Valentine" to the young woman cured.
Another man named Valentine who was a bishop of Terni, part of the province of Umbria, Italy, was also beheaded after similarly attempting religious conversion and healing his own son.
Our friendly registrars, the Bollandists, believe that these two accounts of Valentine are likely to be different versions (Roman and Terni) of the same man's death.
There's other legends of these saintly lives swimming around such as a Valentine defying Emperor Gothicus's orders (the Emperor outlawed marriage for young men, believing single men without family made better soldiers) and secretly conducting marriage for young people; another account credits a Valentine for trying to help Christians, who were often beaten and tortured in Roman prisons, to escape.
As it turns out, there are various tales, stories, or myths about the origins of Valentine's Day. Since a single version has yet to be defined as truth, this is one holiday that's going to stay shrouded in mystery.
Did you find yourself as surprised by the history of Valentine's Day as I was? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Sources: History.com, NPR, Smithsonian.com, Encyclopædia Britannica, New World Encyclopedia