Valentine’s Day is a day of romance, love, heart-shaped candy, and sentimental cards. We send our children to school to pass out sweet little notes of affection to their friends, and now, thanks to commercialism, this “love” has even extended to buying things for people who aren’t our Valentines. Many churches have special events for couples to celebrate their love.
Yet, in the early 20th century, Valentine cards depicted heavy racial imagery and offensive text that targeted African Americans, Asian immigrants, and Native Americans.
Wow, Valentine’s Day was ugly there for a while, wasn’t it? But what started all of this, and how did February 14th become a romantic day for lovers? It actually began centuries ago. First recorded in the third century A.D., Valentine’s Day was probably celebrated for many centuries before that.
- Valentine’s Day was originally celebrated on the evening of February 14th through February 15th; it was called Lupercalia the Feast of Lupercus in honor of Lupercus and honored the deified hero and hunter of wolves.
The first interpretation has this celebration originating as a pagan tradition in the third century. During this time hordes of hungry wolves roamed outside of Rome where shepherds kept their flocks. The God Lupercus, was said to watch over the shepherds and their flocks and keep them from the wolves. Every February the Romans celebrated a feast called Lupercalia to honor Lupercus so that no harm would come to the shepherds and their flocks. Also during Lupercalia, but in honor of the goddess Juno Februata, the names of young women were put into a box and names were drawn by lot. The boys and girls who were matched would be considered partners for the year, which began in March. This celebration continued long after wolves were a problem to Rome. St. Valentine’s Day As Christianity became prevalent, priests attempted to replace old heathen practices. (Source via COGwriter)
- The first recorded mention of Valentine’s Day was in 1382 in a poem written by medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer to commemorate the engagement of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. The context of the Parlement of Foules indicates that the rituals were well-known and had been in practice for a long time. Chaucer wrote that Valentine’s Day was believed to be the day birds mate. (Source)
For this was Seynt Valentine’s Day when every foul cometh there to choose his mate, he wrote. (Source)
The tradition of birds choosing their mates on St. Valentine’s Day led to the idea that boys and girls would do the same. Now when a youth drew a girl’s name, he wore it on his sleeve, and attended and protected her during the following year. This made the girl his valentine and they exchanged love tokens throughout the year. Later this was changed to only men giving love tokens to females, usually without names but signed with St. Valentine’s Love. Later, in France, both sexes drew from the Valentine box. A book called Travels in England, written in 1698, gives an account of the way it was done: On St. Valentine’s Eve an equal number of Maids and Bachelors get together, each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up and draw by way of lots, the Maids taking the Men’s billets, and the Men the Maids; so that each of the young Men lights upon a Girl that he calls his Valentine, and each of the Girls upon a young Man which she calls hers. By this means each has two Valentines but the Man sticks faster to the Valentine that is fallen to him than to the Valentine to whom he is fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the Valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in Love. This ceremony is practiced differently in different countries, and according to the freedom or severity of Madame Valentine. This is another kind of Valentine, which is the first young Man or Woman chance throws in your way in the street, or elsewhere.? (Source via COGwriter)
- At the beginning of each Lupercalia festival, priests called Lupercia gathered in a cave on the Palantine Hill in Rome to sacrifice animals goats for fertility and a dog for purification. The goat’s skin was then cut into strips, which the priests would dip into the sacrificial blood of the animals (yuck). Young boys (some say the priests themselves) then ran naked through the streets of the towns slapping the bloody skins on women in a practice called lustration – light flogging and crops to increase fertility. (Source) In 2006, archaeologists found the Lupercal cave where the priest’s rituals were conducted. (National Geographic)
- In 15th century England, courts were opened on February 14th to hear cases involving love and marriage. (Source)
- The original Valentine’s Day cards were called billets. Young women gathered in the cities and their names were put in a box. Roman men would draw a billet from the box and the woman whose name was on it became his sexual partner they’d then have wild sex until February 14th. Later, this practice was cleaned up a bit, and the’strips of paper were drawn from an urn by boys to match up a couple. The couple was paired up for a year of courtship and sex, with many ending in marriage. (American Catholic via COGwriter)
- The first Valentine card officially on record was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, a French nobleman in English captivity following the Battle of Agincourt. (Source)
- The iconic heart shape was never meant to symbolize a human heart. It is widely believed to have represented the female opening to the chamber of sacred copulation. (Slate has a few other theories)
- In 498 A.D., Pope Gelasius ended Lupercalia and outlawed it calling it unchristian. He later worked with priests to “Christianize” the holiday so that they could still attract pagan worshipers. (University of Chicago)
- After Pope Gelasius outlawed the holiday, priests secretly gathered together and renamed it St. Valentine’s Day. They knew that their flock, like people today, would have a very hard time giving up time-honored practices, so they Christianized the festival to prevent alienating the people they needed to fill their churches. Again, like us today. (University of Chicago)
- Christian missionaries in Anaunia were killed for trying to suppress the ancient rituals. (University of Chicago)
- Sweet little Cupid, also known as Eros, Amor, and Kama was the false deity of eroticism and pornographic love. This little guy was NOT an innocent cherub.
Eros seems to have been responsible for impregnating a number of goddesses and mortals. The ancient Greeks believed Eros was the force of love, a force they believe was behind all creation. He is portrayed today as a cute, chubby, cherub with bow and arrow, ready to shoot people and infect them with pangs of love. (Source)
- There is a town in Italy named San Valentino. Their practices are far from romantic:
[…] You would think this town might be the most romantic town in a country that lives for romance, but you would be wrong. Every year, San Valentino hosts a parade called Festa dei Cornuti (the Festival of the Cuckolds), which honors or mocks men with adulterous wives by parading them through the streets. (Source)
- There are many myths about Saint Valentine. Valentine was a common Roman name and there were at least three some sources say seven early Christian martyrs who were named Valentine and honored on this day (NPR). None of them has an association with romance. It is widely believed that the priests who renamed Lupercalia after a saint did so in order to make it acceptable to Pope Gelasius. (Source)
- One possibly credible story suggests Saint Valentine was a priest who secretly married lovers on February 14th after marriages were banned by Emperor Claudius. It is said that he was jailed and over time, fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. On the day he died, February 14th, it is said that he passed his young lover a note that read “From Your Valentine.” This story is much nicer than the whole goat skin dipped in blood story, don’t you agree? Let’s go with this one. Whew. (Source) Another variation of this story:
Depending on who you talk to, St. Valentine was either a Roman priest practicing in the Eternal City or a bishop in Umbria. He either got in trouble for performing Christian marriages or for healing people while serving Jesus. Either way, Valentine ended up in a Roman prison circa 270, which wasn’t the best place for a Christian to be at that time. Emperor Claudius II was said to have taken a liking to the charming Valentine but Claudius’s affection for Valentine waned when the smooth-talking priest tried to push his Jesus agenda on the pagan Emperor. Soon after, he was bludgeoned and beheaded. (Source)
The history of Valentine’s Day is so shrouded in myth and legend that it’s probably not possible to pin down the precise origins. But one thing is certain: our practices today are MUCH nicer than those of previous centuries.
Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!
For more info about the history of Valentine’s Day, enjoy this History Channel video.