Feb 14, 2012

The Origins of Valentine's Day

When someone mentions Valentine’s Day, most of us have visions of hearts and cupids dancing in our heads. And if you ask the average person how Valentine’s Day got started, they’ll probably mumble something about Hallmark cards coming up with the idea.

The truth is, Valentine’s Day is rooted in the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, celebrated from February 13 to 15. Priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. The hides from the sacrifices would then be cut into strips and dipped in sacrificial blood. Then the priests would slap both women and crop fields with the hide strips. The woman believed the touch of the hides would make them more fertile for the coming year.

Next came a match-making lottery. All the young women in the city would place their names into a jar and the young men would each draw the name of their prospective lover. These matches would last until the next festival and often ended in marriage.

The rise of Christianity saw many pagan holidays being renamed and dedicated to Christian martyrs. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with Saint Valentine’s Day. Instead of men and women taking the names of lovers in the lottery, they were to draw the name of saints, who were to be their moral and spiritual guides for the year.

No one knows for certain why Valentine was chosen for the patron saint of the day. There were actually three men named Valentine who were martyred on February 14. One was a Bishop from Terni, and one was a priest from Africa. But the most famous Valentine, and the most likely candidate, was a Roman priest who lived during the reign of Claudius II.

The Roman Empire was in turmoil when Claudius became emperor. In an effort to raise more men for the Roman armies, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements, believing marriage made men weak with their emotional attachments. Valentine, who was a bishop, refused to respect the ban and started marrying couples in secret. It was only a matter of time before he was caught and thrown into prison.

According to one legend, while in prison Valentine fell in love with his jailor’s daughter and just before his death wrote her a letter signed, “From your Valentine,” the phrase that’s still used today. Although the truth behind this is murky, there is no doubt this legends accentuates his appeal as a sympathetic and romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, Valentine had become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

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