Valentine’s Day is not all hearts and flowers and Fanny Mae. But you probably already knew that. The origins and subsequent ‘celebrations’ of St. Valentine’s Day have lent themselves to some pretty gory stuff. How did romance and sentimentality get intertwined in it? Well…
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” — William Shakespeare
Grab some chocolates and read on to discover some origins of this strange but beloved holiday.
All Roads Lead To Rome
The ancient Romans had a holy day called Lupercalia, traditionally celebrated on February 15. This was the original feast upon which St. Valentine’s Day is based. Shakespeare’s famous play ‘Julius Caesar’ actually begins on Lupercalia. Soldiers Flavius and Marullus need to set up extra security, due to masses of reveling people:
FLAVIUS: Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday?…
MARULLUS: You know it is the feast of Lupercal.
The real trouble, of course, will come a month later, at the Ides of March with the murder of Caesar. But Lupercal serves as foreshadowing. Trouble in the streets, bloodshed inevitable.
What exactly was the feast of Lupercal? There are, reportedly, a few different origins. Part of the celebration was in tribute to the goddess Juno, the patron of marriage and fertility.
Activities involved a lottery in which young girls’ names were written on slips of paper and thrown into jars to be picked out by the boys. The chooser and chosen would then be partnered for the duration of the Lupercalia festival. If you liked your partner, great. But if not, you were stuck.
The celebrations then continued in honor of Faunus or Pan, the god of shepherds. He represented fertility and the beginnings of spring. It was also a dedication to Lupa, the she-wolf. Legend has it that Lupa acted as a pseudo mom to the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, suckling them from birth. Romulus and Remus grew up to be bad asses and also were the founders of Rome. Hence, the feast day was called Lupercalia, or ‘Wolf Festival’.
Lupercalia was a wild and reckless time.
The festival rites were conducted by an organization called Luperci — the ‘brothers of the wolf’. They were the high priests of Pan. The festival began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog. Next, two young priests were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk. (Interestingly, sheep and milk play an important role in the feast of Imbolc.)
Next – the fun part! The Luperci guys cut throngs from the skins of the animals. Interestingly, the goat throngs were called ‘februa’ — hence our month “February”. They then ran through the streets dressed only in goat skins and chased women, trying to hit them with the februa.
It may not have been as violent as it seems. Girls and young women would willingly line up to be touched by the februa which had magical powers and was thought to ensure fertility. The practice was therefore popular among women who were trying to get pregnant.
Shakespeare’s play has a reference to this belief as well. Caesar instructs Marc Antony to touch his wife Calpurnia with the throng:
CAESAR (to Calpurnia): Stand you directly in Antonius’ way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!
ANTONY: Caesar, my lord?
CAESAR: Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
My Bloody Valentinus
How did the rowdy feast of Lupercalia become Saint Valentine’s Day?
The real Saint Valentine — aka Valentinus — was a conscientious 3rd century bishop.
During the reign of Claudius II, the Roman empire was on a decline due to oppression from the Gauls, Slavs, and other forces attempting to overthrow Rome. Claudius needed all the power he could get for his armies, and felt that married men could not possibly be good warriors. So he made marriage illegal. Valentinus, an advocate for human rights, would have none of this! Valentinus took it upon himself to perform secret marriages in opposition to the emperor’s laws. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to death.
But it wasn’t that simple. As fate would have it – Valentinus fell in love with the jailer’s daughter during his confinement. Before his death, Valentinus is said to have asked for a quill and paper. He wrote a farewell letter to his sweetheart from the jail and signed ‘From Your Valentine’. The expression stuck! 🙂
Linked together, the traditions all seem suspiciously similar. A lottery of valentines, the deliberate pairing of men and women, a celebration of fertility, a connection of death and love.
Valentinus was executed as a Christian martyr on February 14, 270 AD. The figure of Saint Valentine was eased in as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire. Around 500 AD, Pope Gelasius officially declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day, ending the Lupercalia celebration for good.
The Birds and the Bees
During the age of chivalry and courtly love, the St. Valentine’s tradition began to take on a more romantic meaning. In the Middle Ages, Valentine began to be celebrated as a heroic and romantic figure amongst people in England and France.
Remember Geoffrey Chaucer? We all get a dose of him in high school and he is often called the ‘Father of the English language’. But he did more than write the Canterbury Tales. UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, author of Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, credits Chaucer as the one who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance.
In medieval France and England it was believed that birds mated on February 14. Hence, Chaucer used the image of birds as the symbol of lovers in poems dedicated to the day. In Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and St. Valentine’s Day are related:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.”
In Chicago we have our own version of the day of love, commemorated by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. On this day in 1929, famous gangster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone staged a shoot out against his rival and fellow bootlegger, George ‘Bugs’ Moran. It was an ingenius plan.
Slick Al Capone had his men pose as police officers, complete with uniforms and billy clubs. They then infiltrated a garage on Chicago’s north side which was a base of Moran’s operations. In the name of the law, they lined Moran’s men against the wall, pulled their tommy-guns and aimed. What resulted was the bloodiest annihilation in gangster history.
It is still a bit of a mystery as to why Capone chose Valentine’s Day to stage his greatest hit. Or perhaps it was very deliberate.
Astonishingly, the weasely Al Capone was never convicted of the murders. Later, however, he was captured and sent to the then maximum-security prison of Alcatraz. His crime? Income tax evasion!
On this Valentine’s Day, count your blessings and share the love!