Love is in the air, and with it, red roses, chocolates in heart-shaped boxes and jewelry. But today’s symbols and celebration of the romantic love we associate with Valentine’s Day have little resemblance to its ancient Roman and early Christian roots, both of which involved some violence.
In the middle of February the ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. While the festival involved a blessing of crops with the blood of sacrificial animals, there were also rites for human fertility.
The festival opened with the sacrifice of a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. The goat’s hide was turned into strips that were then dipped into the sacrificial blood. The strips were used to whip young women, who lined up to be beaten because they believed that the whipping would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, a lottery paired up the city’s unmarried women and men for the remainder of the year. Sometimes the lottery got it right, and couples who fell in love were married at the end of the year.
During the 5th century, by which time Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman empire, Lupercalia was outlawed. In its place, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 Saint Valentine’s Day.
Saint Valentine was a third-century Christian priest who lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had prohibited young people from marrying because he thought that unmarried men made better soldiers than men with wives and children. Valentine defied Claudius’ edict and continued to perform marriages in secret. In 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a brutal execution that included beating, stoning and decapitation.
A legend associated with Valentine’s imprisonment and execution has done much over the centuries to establish the man as a romantic figure. According to the story, while he was in prison, Valentine healed the daughter of one of the Roman judges who was to decide his fate, and he fell in love with her. On the day of his execution, he sent her a note and signed it, “From your Valentine,” the salutation immortalized in Valentine’s Day greetings.
The association of the feast of Saint Valentine with romance began to gain traction in medieval times when written Valentine’s Day messages began to appear. This may have had something to do with Geoffrey Chaucer, who linked Valentine’s Day to love in his poem The Parliament of Fowls (1380); on Valentine’s Day, all the birds known to man chose their mates.
Towards the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers of all social classes exchanged symbols of affection. By 1900, commercial cards began to replace handwritten notes, and at some point, Valentine’s Day morphed into the hugely successful commercial celebration of today.
The roots of Valentine’s Day go deep into the past, to a pagan fertility festival and the martyrdom of a priest whom legend remade into a figure of romantic love. Since medieval times, it has been a day to express and exchange tokens of affection. So whether it is a simple card or an expensive piece of jewelry, whether you spend a little, a lot, or nothing at all on Valentine’s Day, love really is in the air; breathe it in!
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.
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