History Q & A February 14, 2012: Why do we Celebrate Valentine’s Day? The Roman Origins & Christian History of Valentine’s Day

HISTORY Q&A:

 

Valentine’s Day: Why Do We Celebrate It? (Hint: Naked Romans)

Source: National Geographic, 2-13-12

An illustration of the Roman Lupercalia festival.

Ancient Roman priests are depicted striking women in a Lupercalia fertility rite.

Illustration by Labrouste Del., Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy

John Roach for National Geographic News

Where did Valentine’s Day come from? (Think naked Romans, paganism, and whips.) What does it cost? And why do we fall for it, year after year?

Valentine’s Day History: Roman Roots

More than a Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, is rooted in pagan partying. (See “Halloween Facts: Costumes, History, Urban Legends, More.”)

The lovers’ holiday traces its roots to raucous annual Roman festivals where men stripped naked, grabbed goat- or dog-skin whips, and spanked young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility, said classics professor Noel Lenski of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The annual pagan celebration, called Lupercalia, was held every year on February 15 and remained wildly popular well into the fifth century A.D.—at least 150 years after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Lupercalia was “clearly a very popular thing, even in an environment where the [ancient] Christians are trying to close it down,” Lenski said. “So there’s reason to think that the Christians might instead have said, OK, we’ll just call this a Christian festival.”

The church pegged the festival to the legend of St. Valentine.

According to the story, in the third century A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius II, seeking to bolster his army, forbade young men to marry. Valentine, it is said, flouted the ban, performing marriages in secret.

For his defiance, Valentine was executed in A.D. 270—on February 14, the story goes.

While it’s not known whether the legend is true, Lenski said, “it may be a convenient explanation for a Christian version of what happened at Lupercalia.”

(Valentine’s Day Pictures: Animal Pairs.)

Valentine’s Day Cards

The first Valentine’s Day card was sent in 1415 from France’s Duke of Orléans to his wife when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt, according to the association.

During the Revolutionary War, Valentine’s Day cards—mostly handwritten notes—gained popularity in the U.S. Mass production started in the early 1900s.

Valentine’s Day Candy:

Fifteenth-century Aztec emperor Moctezuma I believed “eating chocolate on a regular basis made him more virile and better able to serve his harem.”

The Origin of Valentine’s Day

Valentine's Day

The origin of Valentine’s Day is mysterious. Valentine’s Day comes from a figure in Christian history but the exact identity of St. Valentine is difficult to prove. Tradition holds Valentine was a priest in Rome, who aided and sheltered Christians in persecution under Claudius II. In addition, he married Christian couples under the newly found faith of Christianity. Valentine was caught, and sent to Rome to renounce his faith. Valentine was be beaten with clubs and was be beheaded. He was executed on February 14, sometime around year 270.

One tradition holds that Valentine himself sent the first “Valentine” card:

While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl — who may have been his jailor’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.

Several “Valentine” names are mentioned in history with a connection to St. Valentine: One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern day Terni, Italy), or  martyred priest in Africa. Two of these two individuals seem to have suffered in the latter half of the third century and were buried on the Flaminian Way outside Rome, but at different distances from the city.

Valentine's Day

To confuse the understanding of Valentine’s Day and St. Valentine, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day around 498 A.D.  Many Christian historians believe that Pope Galasius did this to Christianize the pagan holiday of Lupercalia, which was a bloody and strange observance.

All of this uncertainty might lead one to believe that St. Valentine was just a made up saint. A figure of the imagination of Christians looking for a story. A myth. Such inconsistencies cause doubt and leave a rather murky past for this holiday. But, one piece of evidence may prove that St. Valentine was an actual historical figure.  A catacomb was discovered from the third century that was dedicated to Valentine.

Regardless if there was one or two individuals named Valentine, it is clear that ancient Christians believed in Valentine as an actual historical figure that they dedicated a tomb to in his honor.  His story inspired early Christians to continue their faith under persecution. It wasn’t until famous writers, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, who made it popular to send love notes to lovers on Valentine’s Feast Day.

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