A Plethora of Valentines

072115 Chris Banner

The celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day officially began in 496 when the Roman Catholic Pope Gelasius I declared it a feast day. In Rome the day originally was designated for the celebration of Lupercalia, a three day pastoral festival (February 13-15) where the celebrants strove to both eliminate evil spirits and increase fertility. When choosing holy days, Christians were known to place them close to pagan festivals in an attempt to ease Christianity into Roman life and to displace the original event. The Roman Catholic Church may have given the day its modern name, but the romantic nature of the festival remains to this day.

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The Lupercalia festival was not the original mid-month festival for Rome. In 700 BC it had subsumed the Februa purification festival, which is where the month of February gets its name. But during this time Rome was a pastoral community and wolves were one of the biggest threats to survival. Worship of Lupercus was said to help ensure the safety and fertility of the flocks, fields, and people.

Elements of the original Februa festival, where young men would sacrifice goats, smear blood on their foreheads, and move through the crowds lashing young married women with strips of goat hide to improve fertility remained. New to the festival was a name-drawing: Unmarried women would place their tokens in an urn and unmarried men would pick them, paying special attention to the woman whose name he had drawn.

What is not historically clear is the actual saint celebrated on Saint Valentine’s Day. The most popular contender is Valentine, a priest who performed clandestine marriage ceremonies for soldiers during the reign of Claudius II. Valentine was caught, jailed, and finally beheaded during Lupercalia around 269 AD. The Catholic church canonized him roughly 200 years later. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were at least three other early Christian saints by that name—one was a priest in Rome, another a bishop in Terni, and a third a missionary in Africa. Rather surprisingly, all of the Valentines were said to have been martyred on February 14th.

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Over the centuries the traditions evolved. According to Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, the English author was the first to link Valentine’s Day with romantic love and marriage (Kelly, 1986). In “The Parliament of Fowls,” the royal engagement of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, the mating season of birds, and St. Valentine’s Day are linked:

For this was on St. Valentine’s Day,
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.

It wasn’t that a tradition of romance on that date didn’t exist before Chaucer mentioned it in his text: he was simply the first person in print to link the Catholic version of the festival and mating–both humans and birds. The drawing of names from an urn during a fertility festival was replaced by a Catholic feast day, which in turn morphed into a holiday for exchanging gifts of poetry, small items of devotion, and hand-made cards.*

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*The tradition of exchanging mass-produced cards for Valentine’s Day became widespread in the 1850’s when Esther A. Howland began selling them in the U.S.

 

References

Kelly, H.A. (1986), Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books/about/Chaucer_and_the_Cult_of_Saint_Valentine.html?id=_bqdZbKPztMC

 

The Catholic Encyclopedia. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=11880

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