By Natasha Were
Once a pagan festival, then a religious holiday, Valentine’s Day has evolved into a cultural institution.
It may be all chocolates, roses and sweet sentiments today, but Valentine’s Day wasn’t always that way. The romantic associations are a relatively recent spin on this long-observed day.
Way back when, at the peak of the Roman Empire and long before Christianity became the dominant faith, the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated between Feb. 13-15. Inspired by the notion that birds paired off to mate at this time of year, it was a pagan fertility festival. Accounts from the time suggest the festival involved the sacrifice of goats and dogs, anda ritual where young men stripped naked and chased young maidens whilst whipping them with the sacrificed animals’ hides.
As Catholicism gained traction from the 4th Century onwards, many such pagan festivals were co-opted by the church, reinvented as holy days and renamed after saints. Historians therefore deduce that when, in 496AD, Pope Gelasius named February 14 in honour of St. Valentine, declaring him patron saint of lovers, it was another example of a pagan festival morphing into a Christian observance.
But who was this St. Valentine, and how did he come to be linked to romance? The answer is unclear as there were at least three Valentines who were canonised, who may or may not have been the inspiration for a patron saint of lovers.
One, Valentine of Rome, was an early Christian who was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded by the Ancient Romans for his beliefs. Before he died legend has it he fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, to whom he would smuggle notes, signed “from your Valentine.”
Another, Valentine of Terni, was also a Christian martyr. His crime was to perform secret wedding ceremonies for young lovers after Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage, believing single men made better, more dedicated soldiers.
Little is known about the third St. Valentine, except that he too was martyred, somewhere in Africa. All three Valentines, however, are believed to have died on Feb. 14.
Celebrating Romantic Love
Perhaps the St. Valentine commemorated on this date is an amalgam of all three, but the date was not associated with notions of romantic love until the 1300s.
Over the centuries,the practices associated with the day evolved: the exchange of hand written notes between lovers gave way to handmade cards decorated with lace, ribbons and cupids. Two centuries later, an affordable postage service and the availability of mass produced cards meant millions were exchanging them.
In 1969 the church removed St. Valentine’s Day as an official religious holiday – but by that time it was a firmly established cultural practice.
Although today both pagan and religious associations have been lost, the celebration of romantic love continues undiminished.