Happy Valentine’s Day! Today I want to talk about the surprising history of this holiday. Despite the current…dare I say sappy traditions associated with Valentine’s Day, its origins are surprisingly dark.
The “celebration” of romance around mid-February dates back to a Pagan feast from ancient Rome called Lupercalia, a fertility and purity ritual. During the raucous affair, men would sacrifice animals and then use strips of their bloody skin to hit women as they lined up naked along the street. This wasn’t done only for sport though, they thought that it would make the women more fertile.
Lupercalia also included a matchmaking ritual. Where men would pull the names of women out of a jar or urn, and remain coupled up for the duration of the celebration. Maybe longer if the vibes were right.
In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius officially declared February 14th to be Valentine’s Day. Some believe this was part of a plan to convert this pagan tradition to a more “civilized” Christian version. Something we see with many major holidays from this era.
There are a few different historic reasons why the name Valentine got dragged into things.
Perhaps the most romantic of these stories dates back to the 3rd century AD when Emperor Claudius the 2nd was so frustrated that his soldiers missed their spouses and children so much while away at war, that he banned marriage. He thought all relationships were distractions for his army. But a priest named Father Valentine refused to honor this ban and continued to perform clandestine wedding ceremonies. Forever a romantic.
The story goes that Emperor Claudius the 2nd figured out what Father Valentine was up to and had him arrested. While the priest awaited his execution date, legend has it that the couples he wed would visit him in prison and pass him flowers and trinkets through the bars of his cell.
But things get even mushier. Father Valentine was scheduled to be put to death on February 14th. But it turned out that he had fallen in love with the daughter of his captor. Some even claim that he was able to restore the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter.
So, of course, he left her a letter before he was killed which he signed from “your Valentine.” You can see the throughline here to our modern-day tradition of giving our Valentine's cards to classmates and crushes. Which is all well and good, but sadly for Father Valentine, he was eventually beheaded in Rome. It’s estimated that he died sometime during 270 AD. And though some legends connect the date of his execution to February 14th, it’s more likely that Valentine’s Day falls on February 14th because of Lupercalia.
Not to exclude anyone, there are actually other Saints to consider here. According to history.com, The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different martyrs, all named Saint Valentine (or something very similar.)
I want to take a moment to shed some light on the infamous icon of Valentine’s Day. Cupid. You’re probably already familiar with Cupid, a cherub God of love and attraction. The ancient Greek version is Eros. Cupid has been adorning cartoons and greeting cards for decades, and Cupid’s heart-tipped arrow has become a symbol of Valentine’s day.
Though an armed, flying, baby in a diaper seems like a weird icon for love, folks have assigned meaning to all of his qualities. For example, it’s said that he carries an arrow and torch because of the often harmful and inflammatory side effects of love and passion. His wings represent the fickleness of lovers.
Cupid’s arrows have two types of powers. His golden-tipped arrows can inject and instigate love, while his dull lead arrows can cause a lover to retreat.
There is so much more to each of these myths and pieces of history, but I will leave us here for today. Remember, no matter how vapid a holiday or tradition may seem to us now, it’s usually got a very rock and roll history behind it.
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