Evolution of a holiday: How Valentine’s Day came to be

Elizabeth Rund

Red roses, chocolate, Cupid and intimate candle-lit dinners have come to be closely associated with Valentine’s Day. But like many other American holidays, Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been the way it is today.

From Lupercalia to lovers

Valentine’s Day is the combination of a Christian celebration and a Roman holiday. Many scholars believe Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of the month in an attempt to ‘christianize’ the pagan Lupercalia festival, while others believe the day commemorates the death of Saint Valentine.

According to the History channel, February marked the official changing of the seasons from winter to spring. It was also considered to be time for purification, during which houses were cleansed by sweeping everything out and sprinkling salt and spelt – a type of wheat – throughout the house.

The Lupercalia festival was originally a fertility festival held to honor Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as the founders of Rome: Romulas and Remus. An order of Roman priests called the Luperci gathered in a cave where Romulans and Remus were said to have been raised by a female wolf, or lupa.

The priests would sacrifice a dog for purification and a goat for fertility. Boys then took the goat and cut its hide into thin strips, which they took into the fields and whipped crops and women. It was said that the whipping would make a women more fertile the next year.

Later in the day, young women would put their names on a slip of paper and put it into a large bowl for a man to pick out. Once the man had picked a name, he would pin it to his shirt sleeve. The man and the woman would be paired together for a year.

Pope Gelasius outlawed the “lottery” method of romantic pairing and declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’ Day around 438 AD.

Who was Saint Valentine?

Although the origins of Saint Valentine and how many Valentines there actually were is still somewhat a mystery, historians do know he was a real person.

Valentine’s tomb was found in an ancient Roman church. Archaeologists also found texts that stated Valentine had been martyred during the reign of Claudius II.

There are many different legends that have been circulated as to why Valentine was beheaded. The more prominent legend holds that Valentine holy Roman priest was thrown in jail for marrying couples and giving aid the those who had been persecuted under Claudius’s rule.

Claudius had become fond of Valentine, until he tried to convert the emperor, at which point he was sentenced to death. Saints are required to perform miracles and Valentine was no exception. Legend has it that while in prison he developed a friendship with the jailer’s blind daughter. Valentine restored her sight and, on the night before his execution, wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine.”

Saint Valentine is the patron saint of couples, bee keepers, love, lovers, happy marriages, travelers and young people. He is often represented in pictures with birds and roses.

Sources: www.catholic.org, the History Channel

Contact features correspondent Elizabth Rund at [email protected].