They say Italians didn’t invent love, we just perfected it. We can, however, take credit for inventing Valentine’s day. Now, I will admit although the cynical assertion that the holiday was started by chocolatiers, florists, and greeting card companies to help bump sales during the post-holiday slump has some appeal, it isn’t correct. If you are one of these naysayers that dreads having to buy flowers and find a coveted seat at an overbooked restaurant every mid-February, blame the Italians.
The true origins date back to Roman times, and some suggest even before then. Of course, being well before Christianity, there was no Saint Valentine to inspire the celebration, this was a pagan festival, with all the trappings of a pagan holiday. There were no cute little cherubs with arrows, boxes of chocolate, or even romantic candle-lit dinners. Rather this was a bawdy Roman fertility rite where young men raced naked through Rome whipping women with goat skins. Many women happily bared their flesh for the whipping believing that it increased fertility. There was also a lottery in which young men would draw women’s names so that they could hook-up (I believe that is what it is called nowadays) for the length of the festival.
This festival was the Lupercalia. The exact intent of the festival is not clear. Some suggest that it was in honor of the Roman pastoral god, Faunus, while others assert that it was in honor of Inuus, the god of fertility. My personal preference is that it was in honor of the Roman fertility god Lupercus. Considering the name of the festival, this only makes sense; Lupa in Italian is wolf. We should also remember that Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome we raised by a she-wolf. The festival began with a sacrifice made at the Lupercal cave on Palatine Hill which was supposedly the cave where Rome’s two founders were nurtured by a she-wolf.
The Lupercalia was a popular festival surviving until 494 BCE, well after the Christianization of the Roman Empire. In that year, Pope Gelasius wrote a letter condemning Christian participation in the celebration. The pope eliminated the pagan holiday, declaring February 14th a day to remember the martyred Saint Valentine. The saint, according to the most common legend, was executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II for providing aid to persecuted Christians and secretly marrying Christians. The latter serving as a tie into the holiday as a day for lovers. As far as the giving of cards, Valentine is reported to have restored the sight of his jailor’s daughter. The night before his execution, Valentine is said to have written a note to the girl signed “from your Valentine.”
Now there is always going to be one group or another that wants to spoil the party. Some groups shun Halloween because of all the devils and witches while other groups tell us that Christmas trees, as well as the celebration of Christmas itself, are things to be avoided because of their pagan origins. These same party-poopers have a problem with Valentine’s day for similar reasons. Admittedly, there are several features of the holiday that do seem to originate with the Lupercalia. The Valentine’s Day colors of red and white, for example, are said to come from the Lupercalia sacrifices with red representing the blood of the animals and white the milk used to wipe the blood clean as well as the representation of procreation, new life.
At the other end of the spectrum are those that say the two are unrelated. They just happen to fall on the same date, after all, there are only 365 days in a year. If as they say, Valentine’s Day did not evolve from the Lupercalia, I believe that it is more than a chance. Like Valentine’s Day, it was probably a great excuse to have one heck of a party in the middle of a boring winter.