While not thought to be directly related to modern Valentine’s Day traditions, the beginnings of celebrating love (of a sort) in February date back to the Romans. The feast of Lupercalia was a pagan fertility and health festival, observed from February 13th through the 15th, that was celebrated at least as far back as 44 BCE (the year Julius Caesar was assassinated). Some historians believe it goes back even further, though with possibly a different name.
Connected to the Roman god Lupercus, (the equivalent to the Greek god Pan), the festival was originally supposed to be about shepherds and bringing health and fertility to their sheep and cows. When it became more ingrained into Roman culture, it additionally celebrated Lupa (also another possible reason it is named what it is), the she-wolf who nursed the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, to health. Religious offerings happened at the cave on Palatine Hill, the place where Rome was thought to be founded.
The ceremonies were filled with animal sacrifices, the wearing of goat skins, and nudity. Priests would lead sacrifices of goats and young dogs, animals who were thought to have a “strong sexual instinct.” Afterwards, a feast would occur with lots of wine flowing. When everyone was fat and happy, the men would shed their clothes, drape the goat skins from the earlier sacrifice on their naked bodies, and run around the city striking naked women.
As Plutarch described:
Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
It has also been speculated that there was match-making that went on during the feast, akin to what people did at festivals during the Middle Ages. Whether the original feast had it or not, later, young men would draw names of young woman, randomly pairing up one another during the feast. If the pairing was agreeable, a marriage could potentially be arranged. If not, well, they broke up.
As the years went by, the feast of Lupercalia was celebrated less by the higher class and the aristocratic and enjoyed almost exclusively by the working class. In fact, the wealthy would insult one another by telling each other to attend the feast of Lupercalia.
In the fifth century, Pope Hilary tried to get the festival banned due to it being a pagan ritual and unchristian. At the end of the fifth century (appx 496 AD), Pope Gelasius I did end up banning it. In a long letter sent to all Roman nobility who wanted the festival to continue, he stated, “If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.”
Pope Gelasius also established a much more Christian celebration and declared it would be honored on February 14th – a feast in which St. Valentine would be the patron saint.
Between the second and eighth centuries, the name Valentine was actually rather common since it translated from Latin meaning “strong or powerful.” Scattered through the Christian religion over the last two thousand years, there have been a dozen different Valentines who have drawn mention, including a Pope (during the 9th century, but was only Pope for two months). It seems the Valentine that Pope Gelasius dedicated a feast to may have been a composite of two or three different men. You see, he never made it clear who exactly he was trying to honor, and even the Catholic Church today isn’t sure.
One of the Valentines lived in the third century and was beheaded under the rule of Emperor Claudius, alleged by some to be because he illegally married Christian couples. Claudius (as did other Emperors before him) believed that soldiers fought better and were more loyal if they were single and had no wife to return home too. So, he banned soldiers from being married.
Another account speaks of a Valentine being killed in the Roman province of Africa because he wouldn’t give up being Christian in the 4th century. Yet another was the Bishop of Interamna (in Italy) during 3rd century; he was beheaded.
Back to 496 AD: Pope Gelasius I instituted the feast in which St. Valentine would be the patron saint, which some have conjectured was meant as a replacement for Lupercalia. After all, co-opting pagan rituals to turn them Christian has been a time-honored practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever the motivations, Gelasius’ new feast didn’t really catch on and no such holiday was commonly celebrated in the middle of February for the next thousand years or so, until the 14th century.
(It should also be noted that while Pope Gelasius did ban Lupercalia and proposed a new holiday, it is thought by many historians to be relatively unrelated to modern Valentine’s Day, in that it seems to have had nothing to do with love. For instance, it has been speculated that it was simply a feast of Purification.)
So what about the more recent direct genesis of Valentine’s Day? This began with Geoffrey Chaucer, who is more known as the writer of The Canterbury Tales. However, he also wrote other things, such as a 700 line poem in 1382 called the “Parliament of Foules,” written in honor of the first anniversary of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement. This poem is generally considered to include the first explicit Valentine’s Day / love connection ever written, with one of the lines reading (of course, translated to modern English),
“For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.”
While some scholars believed Chaucer invented the Valentine’s Day / love connection that was previously not mentioned in any writings that have survived to this day, it may well have been that he simply helped popularized the idea. Around the same time Chaucer was penning this poem, at least three other notable authors (Otton de Grandson, John Gower, and Pardo from Valencia) were also referencing St. Valentine’s Day and the mating of birds in their poems.
Whatever the case, the idea of Valentine’s Day being a day for lovers caught on, with an early Valentine being written by Margery Brewes in 1477 to John Paston, who she called “my right well-beloved Valentine.”
Over a century later, Shakespeare was writing about Valentine’s Day in, among other works, Hamlet with this line,
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Fast-forward to around the 18th century and the idea of exchanging love note cards on Valentine’s Day started to become extremely popular in Britain, first hand-made then produced commercially (initially called “Mechanical Valentines”). This tradition of exchanging love notes on Valentine’s Day soon spread to America. Esther A. Howland, whose father ran a large book and stationary store, received a Valentine and decided this would be a great way to make money; so was inspired to begin mass producing these cards in the 1850s in the United States. Others followed suit.
Since then, the holiday has steadily grown to today when it is an absolute marketing and money making machine (second only to Christmas in money spent by consumers). Further, according to the Greeting Card Association, more than 25% of all cards sent each year are Valentine’s Day cards, about one billion cards each year. In the 1980s, the diamond industry decided it wanted its cut and began running marketing campaigns promoting Valentine’s Day as a day to give jewelry to show you really loved someone, instead of just sending cards and chocolates; this was obviously a very successful campaign.
So, this year on Valentine’s Day, when you have your hands full of roses, chocolates, and Hallmark Cards for your Valentine, you’ll know who to thank – Pope Gelasius banning a naked, drunk pagan ritual, the beheading of a guy for supposedly marrying people, and Geoffrey Chaucer and his Parliament of Foule