Valentine Day

Valentine’s day may have its origins in the Lupercalia, an ancient Roman, and possibly pre-Roman, pastoral festival. The Lupercalia were celebrated on the ides of February, and subsumed the spring cleansing ritual of Februa, which gives the month of February its name. By purifying the city and purging it of evil spirits, the Lupercalia brought health and fertility. Priests sacrificed a goat and a dog to the god Lupercus, whose image, nude but for the girdle of a goatskin, stood in the Lupercal, the cave in which a she-wolf (lupa) suckled Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. Lupercus is associated with Faunus, the Roman equivalent of Pan, the Greek god of the wild.

The origins of St Valentine (or Valentinus, meaning ‘strength’) are so obscure that, in 1969, the Catholic Church removed him from the General Roman (liturgical) Calendar. There are at least three early Christian saints by the name of Valentinus. One was a priest in Rome, the second was a bishop in Terni, and the third was martyred in Africa. The flower-crowned skull of one of the first two Valentines can be venerated in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. In 496, Pope Gelasius I established St Valentine’s February 14th feast day, perhaps to replace or Christianize the rowdy Lupercalia. St Valentine, usually represented with birds and roses, became the Patron Saint of courtly love, lovers, affianced couples, and happy marriages, and also beekeepers, epilepsy, fainting, and plague, among others.

Over time, legends grew around the figure of St Valentine. According to one prominent legend, he was a priest who attracted the opprobrium of Emperor Claudius II. Believing that bachelors make better soldiers, Claudius prohibited marriage for young men, but Valentine continued to marry them, and, when challenged, attempted to convert Claudius to Christianity. To punish him for his insolence, Claudius ordered that he be beaten, stoned, and beheaded. While in prison awaiting his ordeal, Valentine fell in love, or made friends, with Julia, the blind daughter of his gaoler Asterius, and sent her secret letters signed ‘from your Valentine’. He restored Julia’s sight, and, beholding this miracle, Asterius converted to Christianity.

It is not until the epoch of courtly love in the Middle Ages that the feast of St Valentine became linked with romantic love. The earliest evidence of this association is fromParlement of Foules (1382), a poem by Chaucer to honour the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia: ‘For this was on St Valentine’s Day (seynt Volantynys days), When every bird/bride (byrd) cometh there to choose his mate.’ In England, birds do not start mating in mid-February, but by the Julian calendar in use in Chaucer’s time, 14th February would have fallen on what is now 23rd February. The oldest known valentine is a rondeau (a mediaeval verse form) to his wife from Charles, Duke of Orléans, who had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and locked up in the Tower of London: Je suis desja d’amour tanné, Ma tres douce Valentinée…

Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday is one of the several things that Shakespeare helped to popularise, with these lines in Hamlet spoken by Ophelia: ‘To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.’ By the 18th century, gift-giving and exchanging cards made of lace and ribbon had become commonplace in England. In the 19th century, the custom spread throughout the English-speaking world, and then, in the later 20th century, well beyond. Today, Americans spend some 30 billion dollars a year celebrating Valentine’s Day, which, after Christmas, has become the most popular card-sending holiday. Women buy 85% of all Valentine’s Day cards, but men buy over 70% of flowers and, according to the National Retail Federation, fork out twice as much overall!