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The History Behind St. Valentine's Day

Sacrifices, whips and blood ... oh my!

Everyone knows Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the United States on February 14 with candy, cards and flowers. But before this holiday was commercialized, it was based on something more. The day we call Valentine’s Day is named after a Christian martyr dating back to the 5th century AD, but even before then it was a celebrated festival in ancient Rome called the Lupercalia.

The priests would cut the goat's skin into strips, dip it into the blood, and wander the Roman streets as they slap the women with the strips.

Although no one knows the exact origins of the festival, which took place every February 15 under the supervision of priests called Luperci, many believe the derivation of the festival’s name comes from the Latin word “lupus,” which means “wolf.” This fits nicely, as the Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of Rome who were saved and suckled by a she-wolf.

The Lupercalia would begin with the Luperci gathering at the entrance to the cave where it was believed Romulus and Remus lived with their wolf-guardian. There the priests would make sacrifices, traditionally a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. After this, the Luperci would cut the goat’s skin into strips, dip it into the blood, and wander the Roman streets as they slap the women with the strips. This may sound a bit odd, but their reasoning was this: The Romans believed that being touched by the bloodied strips on this day would make the women (and crops) more fertile in the year to come.

Enter the Christian church, which recognizes three saints that we know of, all named Valentine or Valentinus. All three were martyred. Obviously the church looked down upon the pagan festival of Lupercalia, however in the church’s infancy it did not want to alienate the thousands of people who celebrated it. Therefore, some claim it placed Valentine’s Day in the middle of February to Christianize the pagan festival, while others say it is because this is the approximate anniversary of the death of St. Valentine.

Either way, Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity, but by the end of the 5th century AD Pope Gelasius declared it unlawful to celebrate it. St. Valentine’s Day was lawful, however, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that it was associated fully with love.

Fun Fact: In 1415 Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote a Valentine to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. This is the oldest known Valentine in existence, and you can read it in the British Library. Sadly, the Duchess died before the Valentine reached her.

Here is an excerpt:

I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine, Since for me you were born too soon, And I for you was born too late. God forgives him who has estranged Me from you for the whole year. I am already, etc. My very gentle, etc.

Well might I have suspected That such a destiny, Thus would have happened this day, How much that Love would have commanded. I am already, etc.

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