Modern-day Valentine's Day customs include sending greeting cards known as valentines to loved ones. School rooms are often decorated with lace and paper hearts. Gifts of candy and flowers are also common.
Everyone knows that St. Valentine's Day probably originated from some sort of festival of love and happiness. But few people realize its true origins as a christianized amalgamation of the traditions of northern-Europe and Rome. The origins of Valentine's Day are uncertain, but many experts believe that it originated with Lupercalia, a Roman celebration honoring the wolves Romulus and Remus. Folklore also tells of the ancient belief that birds (particularly lovebirds) began to mate on February 14th.
Valentine's Day is celebrated on February 14th as a festival of love and romance. While it is named after two Christian martyrs named Valentine, the celebration is actually patterned after a Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia.
Lupercalia took place on February 15th to honor Juno, the Roman goddess of women and marriage, and Pan, god of nature. Young men and women chose partners for the festival by drawing names randomly from a box. These partners exchanged gifts as a signof affection, and often married.
Some of its preliminary history dates back to early Roman times. Back then, it actually started February 13th at sunset, the original Ancient Roman festival of the dead, Parentalia; and continued to the Feralia on the 21st. Although rather dated by today's standards, it was considered an unlucky month, in that was associated with the dead, and thus no marriages took place.
Lupercalia was originally an Ancient Roman spring fertility festival held on March 15th. It was said by Cicero to be so ancient in origin as to have been "instituted before civilization and law existed." People assembled at the cave called the Lupercal, where Romulus and Remus, the eponymous founders of Rome; suckled their wolf foster-mother. In the early days of Rome, fierce wolves roamed the woods nearby. The Romans called upon one of their gods, Lupercus, to keep the wolves away. Their calender was different at that time, with February falling in early springtime. And thus Lupercalia became connected with the legendary she-wolf (Latin lupus=wolf). In fact, the term "wolf" was a synonym in Rome for a sexually available woman, so the day became connected with Venus, goddess of sexual love. Venus' son Cupid also played an important part in this love feast.
One of the customs of the young people was name-drawing. On the eve of the festival of Lupercalia the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars or bags. Each young man drew a slip. The names were drawn during the mid-February festivities and presents were exchanged; the couples would then remain together throughout the duration of the festival, or possibly longer.
Now this is where it gets a little gross. Goats and dogs were sacrificed and the youth had their heads smeared with the blood. The youths were naked except for animal skins. A throng was also made from animal skin and used to lash at the women as they went rushing around the scene. The men struck the women with a goatskin hide called a februa (where we get the word February). Receiving the blows was thought to make women more fertile and to ease childbirth. The women put themselves in the way of the lash as a sort of purification ritual of fertility magic. The youths were called the Lupercai. This purification ritual became, under Christianity, in the 6th Century, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In fact, Christianity simply attached many of the festivals traditions to a Saint, modified the date a little bit, and viola, another pagan holiday for the new religion.
The name of this well-known lover's holiday was thought to have come from at least two different men named Valentine. Both were priests in Rome at the time Christianity was the new religion on the block. The first was a bishop of Terni, about 60 miles from Rome. He was persecuted for converting a Roman family to Christianity, and was beheaded in Rome.
The second St. Valentine suffered a similar fate. He lived in Rome during the 200's and was jailed for aiding persecuted Christians. The Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus ordered the Roman soldiers NOT to marry or become engaged. Claudius believed that as married men, his soldiers would want to stay home with their families rather than fight his wars. Valentine defied the Emperor's decree and secretly married the young couples. He was eventually arrested, imprisoned, and put to death.
As the legend goes, he was beheaded by the Romans on February 14, 270 AD, the eve of the Roman holiday Lupercalia, on top of Palantine Hill at the site of an ancient altar to Juno. His remains are buried in the church of St. Praxedes in Rome. Valentine was then named a saint. In 496, Pope Gelasius changed the Lupercalia festival to February 14th - Valentine's Day, to give Christian meaning to a pagan festival. Thereafter, February 14th was designated feast day (until 1969, when it was dropped from the Roman Catholic calendar) to honor the two Christian saints.
Valentine's Day's northern-European origins are a little more mellow, by comparasion. They are dedicated to the Norse deity Vali, the archer god, son of Odin (aka Woden, Teutonic deity, where we get Wodin's Day, better known as Wednesday). It's also dedicated to St. Febronia, aka the goddess Juno Februa, (from Febris, fever of love) where we get the name February. And, of course we all know how Caesar Augustus stole a day from her. The holiday become popular in the United States in the 1800's during the Civil War. Now we celebrate the holiday honoring Saint Valentine instead of Lupercus.
Love letters on Valentine's Day and throughout the year are often signed with a string of "X"s to represent kisses. But, why should an "X" be the symbol for a kiss? Our practice of using an "X" for a kiss grew out of the Medieval practice of letting those who could not write mark documents with an "X" to represent their name. This was done in the presence of Witnesses and a kiss was given upon the "X" to show sincerity. The "X" then became synonymous with the kiss in the minds of most people. The reason why the symbol "X" was chosen to represent ones name is found in two possible explanations.
One explanation has it that the "X" shape was original
thought of as a cross. This "X" shaped cross or crux
decussata was the symbol of St. Andrew (the brother of St. Peter).
It may have been that people were making a pledge in the name
of the martyred saint. It was only later that people thought of
it more as a letter of the English alphabet, rather than a cross.
The second explanation is that it might have been a pledge in
the name of Christ. The "X", or Chi symbol is also a
letter of the Greek alphabet, which has in past church history
been used to represent the name "Christ."
Note: This is an excerpt of a pending book entitled "The Hidden History of Holidays." If you would like to be notified when it becomes available fill out the form below.
This book is being written one holiday at a time, also check out these other chapters:
Other book projects include Mystery of America and Secrets We Live By (Pending).
Tédd is an author, lecturer, researcher, videographer, and amongst other interests is writing several books on a variety of topics.