It’s interesting the amount of vitriol that the mere mention of Valentine’s Day can inspire. Yes, it’s become pretty commercialized and taken over by corporate America looking to trick you into spending unnecessary money (shop the Kindred Black Valentine edit here!). But as usual, there’s a ton of interesting history behind this most amorous of holidays, and if you strip away the sappy cards and the horror of trying to get a reservation, you may find some enjoyment in A Little Background.
From Feb 13-15th the Romans celebrated the pagan feast of Lupercalia. During the festival a goat and a dog would be sacrificed and women would line up to be beaten with the fresh hides, believing that it would make them fertile (those sappy greeting cards aren’t looking so bad anymore, are they?). The drunken and naked fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which the names of a man and a woman would be drawn from a jar. The pair would then be coupled up for the rest of the celebration and would remain so if the match seemed auspicious.
Later the Roman Emperor Claudius II executed two men named Valentine on Feb 14th of different years in the 3rd Century AD. There are conflicting stories about which man is actually being celebrated on our modern holiday and some believe that the stories being so similar, they are actually only about one man in the first place. One legend holds that when Claudius decided that single men made more committed soldiers and outlawed the practice of marriage for young men, a priest named Valentine defied the order and married young couples in love in secret. This unfortunate Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution of beating, stoning and decapitation – a bit of overkill in our humble opinion.
The story of the other Valentine ends similarly, though possibly not as brutally. He was apparently imprisoned for helping ordinary citizens escape the harsh, torturous confinement of Roman prisons and fell in love with a young girl that visited him. At some point before his death he wrote his love a short letter and signed off with “from your Valentine”, thus sending the very first, well… “Valentine”.
Though the date of both executions has officially gone down in history as Feb 14th, there are some that believe that the Christian church may have planted the feast of St Valentine smack in the middle of Lupercalia in an effort to Christianize (and add more clothing into) the pagan celebration.
The celebration of St Valentine wasn’t inextricably linked with love and romance though until around 1375 when the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his “Parliament of Foules”. In the poem Chaucer writes “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate” for the first time linking the feast with a day of courtly and romantic love. With a stroke of his pen, he may have invented the holiday we all now love to hate.
Above: Feast of Lupercalia, Andrea Camassei