Wolves, Goats, Martyrs
and War: a History of Valentine's Day
by: Blake Kritzberg
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
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 Valentine’s Day?
- 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
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
- Something Old, Something New
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 sacrificed 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 haranguing
his fellow senators.
Eventually, Lupercalia began to fall
out of favor, although Augustus revived it for a time in a fit of
- 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
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 romance.
- 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:
morning to you, valentine
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.
Valentine! Whose day this is
All the air is thy diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners … wrote Donne.
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 herself
- Initially Resistant
Pragmatic, puritanical 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.
About The Author
Blake Kritzberg is a copywriter,
web designer, and proprietor of http://www.e-free-greeting-card.com.
This article may be freely reprinted so long as this resource box
and URL are preserved. Visit the website for listings and reviews
of funny, spiritual and edgy e-cards.
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