Wolves, Goats, Martyrs and War:
by: Blake Kritzberg
a History of Valentine's
Valentines Day is one of the most enigmatic of holidays, having appeared
in many forms. But all “Valentine’s Days” have drawn suspicion. In
fact, after hundreds of years of attempted reform, Christian observance came
to an end when the Catholic Church purged St. Valentine’s Day from its
calendar in 1969.
Still, the holiday continues to inspire an annual avalanche of cards, not
to mention the mass consumption of chocolates, flowers and sometimes, pricier
presents. What do we commemorate when we celebrate Valentine’s Day?
- Running with the Wolves
If you’ve ever researched the history of Valentines Day, you know it
began with wolves and ancient Spring magic. The earliest instance we know of
starts with the tough old shepherds and founders of Rome who feared and
respected the wolves that preyed on their flocks. Once a year, they held
sacrifices to Lupercus, the god of shepherds, enemy of wolves, and friend of
dogs. Other shepherds sacrificed to Faunus, who also protected shepherds but
was part goat.
The celebration, called Lupercalia, was held during early spring, which
since time immemorial has been a season for purification. All the ancients
saw that in the winter, the earth fell quiet and covered itself in white.
Late winter and early spring was the time for human purification also, to be
followed closely by fertility magic.
- Something Old, Something New
Rome still celebrated Lupercalia after it had matured and become a great
republic. In fact, all civic life came to a halt for the festival.
Because of the Remus and Romulus legend, Lupercalia enjoyed great respect.
Sons of noblemen were appointed to be Lupercalian priests, or luperci, and
tasked with a number of duties. Each year they sacrificed a dog (for Lupercal)
and a goat (for Faunus) at the bottom of a cave at Palantine Hill. Wearing
nothing but goat hide, they cut thongs from the skin and ran the perimeter of
“old Rome,” slapping women with the bloody strips. Women put themselves
forward for this, meaning to be purified and made fertile. (Our month of
February, Febrarius, means “month of purification.”) Afterward, Rome
indulged in a love lottery in which young men drew young women’s names from
a jar and became their “partners” for a time.
Eventually, the Roman upper-crust grew too refined to feel at ease with
Lupercalia. Cicero sniffed that the luperci were:
A certain wild association of Lupercalian brothers, both plainly pastoral
and savage, whose rustic alliance was formed before civilization and laws.
A certain politician made sport of Lupercalia's anachronistic air by
wearing his luperci skin to work and haranging his fellow senators.
Eventually, Lupercalia began to fall out of favor, although Augustus
revived it for a time in a fit of national patriotism.
- The Church Triumphant
The church is sometimes vilified for its Lupercalian edits. It found the
love lottery unacceptable, as well as the luperci. But rather than ban the
fete outright, it tried assimilation.
First, the love lottery was replaced with a high-minded version, where
each man drew a saint instead of a girl and was invited to emulate that saint
throughout the year. (This custom is sometimes observed today). Then the
purification aspect was re-clothed in a feast of the Purification of the
Virgin Mary, scheduled for early February. As for fertility magic, the church
dodged this altogether, although one can see traces of the purifying and
“greening” impulse in the spirit and chapel decorations of Lent.
As for the fourteenth of February, the church dedicated the day to the
Christian martyr, Valentine. Contrary to the sugared rumors that have sprung
up around him (or more accurately, them -- there were several St.
Valentines), the saint almost certainly had nothing to do with love or
- Knights in Shining Armor
Lupercalia had been well and truly squelched in Rome. But to the west and
north, where the Age of Chivalry triumphed, Europeans could not let the
tradition molder and with childlike zest, revived it. The English cast off
the papal practice of drawing saints, but their new notions of chivalric love
led to a more innocent type of boy/girl lottery than Rome had ever seen.
Young girls drew on the power of dream pillows -- filled or pinned with
aromatics like bay leaves or lavender -- to catch a glimpse of their future
mates. Small children dressed in adult clothes and roamed the streets, gently
mocking the “new” fascination with love:
"Good morning to you, valentine
Curl your locks as I do mine--
Two before and three behind.
Good morning to you, valentine."
Unlike the serious Lupercalian business of patriotism and the appeasement
of gods, this kinder, gentler Valentine’s day spoke of a young person’s
coming-of-age. Chivalry’s themes of chaste love and longing played major
Hail, Bishop Valentine! Whose day this is
All the air is thy diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners … wrote Donne.
The world grows old over and over again, and in England, Valentine’s Day
aged with it. The tradition of laying out for gifts took hold, with the
height of luxurious gifting possibly reaching its height around Restoration
England. Lords gave Ladies rings and brooches of staggering worth, and even
Samuel Pepys (not a famous romantic) recorded having given his wife “a
Turkey-stone set with diamonds.” She was grateful, and as he noted, “I am
glad of it, for it is fit the wretch should have something to content herself
- Initially Resistant
Pragmatic, puritanical America long withstood Europe’s festivities,
fending off fairies, maypoles, effigy-burning and even Valentine’s Day.
Women were scarce in the harsh days of the nation’s dawn, and public
displays of affection were outlawed in any case. It wasn’t until the Civil
War that the country relented: long, lonely rifts in families endeared the
saint to them at last. Prior to the war, elaborate commercial valentines
(including “mechanical” types) had begun to flood the market and grow
Of course, this uncharacteristic flood of romance could not go unchecked,
and the widespread embrace of valentines was closely followed by the
“vinegar” valentine, a comic and sometimes, caustic type.
When the war ended, and Americans crept into the light of Reconstruction,
they found a freshly industrialized nation. Along with it came a
transcontinental railroad, typewriters, an internal combustion engine, and --
most importantly for Valentine’s Day -- heart-shaped boxes full of
commercial chocolates (a gimmick invented by the Cadbury brothers during the
1860s). Although fine diamonds and jewelry never quite became the norm among
Americans, the standard “recipe” of cards, flowers, and a heart-shaped
box of chocolates had been carved in the national psyche. Now Valentine’s
Day is only second to Christmas in number of cards bought and sent.
About The Author
Blake Kritzberg is a copywriter, web designer, and proprietor of http://www.e-free-greeting-card.com.
This article may be freely reprinted so long as this resource box and
URL are preserved. Visit the website for listings and reviews of
funny, spiritual and edgy e-cards.
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