by Daniel Deagler
“What is this thing called love?” asks the Cole Porter song. Heck if I know. Go ask a poet. Or, better yet, an endocrinologist. What I want to know is: What does this thing called love have to do with Feb. 14? Who is St. Valentine, and what exactly does he (or did he) have to do with long-stemmed red roses, heart shaped boxes of chocolate, and the art of romance?
Like so many other celebrations with deep roots, modern Valentine’s Day traditions are connected to early Christian traditions, which in turn were derived from even earlier pre-Christian traditions. First off, there was not one St. Valentine. There were at least two, possibly three, and as many as 11 men named Valentine (or Valentinus) who were martyrs of the early church. Two specifically had the assigned feast day of Feb. 14: Valentine of Terni, who was bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) about AD 200, and Valentine of Rome, who was martyred in AD 269.
Very little is known of the two St. Valentines and certainly nothing to suggest why either one of them would come to be considered the patron saint of candle-lit dinners. There is a legend about a Third Century priest named Valentine who secretly married soldiers who were forbidden to marry by the emperor, but this was almost certainly made up hundreds of years after it was supposed to have happened.
The only real connection that the two Saints Valentine have to the day devoted to love and romance might be deliberate placement of the their feast day on top of the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia (Feb. 13 through 15). Lupercalia means “Wolf Festival,” and it was in honor of the mythical she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. Lupercalia was very ancient — and very rowdy.
Priests would sacrifice two male goats and then anoint two young men with the blood from the goats. Then strips of hide would be cut from the goats; the strips (called februa from which we get “February”) would be dipped in goat’s blood, and the young men, wearing either loincloths made from goatskin or nothing at all, would run around the walls of the old Palatine city and smack people with the bloody strips.
You can’t make this stuff up! It was fabulously popular, and people would line up to get smacked. Women thought it would bring fertility to the infertile and ease pregnancies and labor pains. Then later on, there would be lots of uninhibited celebration where people would enjoy food, drink and presumably, each other. Kind of like Spring Break but with more goat blood.
Lupercalia was certainly lusty but not particularly romantic — unless you think a wet t-shirt contest is romantic. The modern concept of romance didn’t even exist until the Age of Chivalry a thousand years after Lupercalia died out. The Chivalric Age was the one of knightly honor, virtue and courtly love. (Most real knights were boorish, illiterate brutes, but the idealized concepts are from this period.)
In 1372 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called “Parliament of Fowles” in which he said it was every year on Valentine’s Day that birds would come together to choose their mates. The romantic connections to Feb. 14 seem to all come from this. The first actual valentine as a love note seems to have been sent from Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London, to his wife in 1415. By the 16th Century written valentines became so popular that priests would sermonize against them from the pulpit.
It was the Victorians (naturally) who added the lace and frill. A Massachusetts woman named Esther Howland created the first mass-produced valentines. Her first cards were hand- made, but as orders poured in she eventually developed a very large printing business. Today Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas in the number of cards exchanged — over one billion.
Thomas Cadbury, the Englishman who invented what we know as chocolate candy (prior to this, “chocolate” was a beverage), is also credited with making the first heart-shaped box for his chocolates, which means there have been Valentine chocolates for as long as there has been chocolate.
Our modern observation of Valentine’s Day is, like so many holidays, a mish-mash of the old and the new, the sacred and the vulgar, the sentimental and the weird. Somehow it all works.
So, if you’re out with your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day, and a naked young man wants to smack you with a strip of blood-drenched goat-hide, just remember it’s good luck. Oh, and that the bloody goat-hide is where we got the name February. You just can’t make this stuff up.
Daniel Deagler is the manager of Flourtown Post Office and a holiday historian. He can be reached at HYPERLINK “mailto:email@example.com”firstname.lastname@example.org.