The 14th. of February was approaching, the sheer volume of heart-shaped balloons and chocolates already taking over shops is a bit of a giveaway. We might all know what is expected of those in relationships on the soppiest day of the year, but where did Valentine’s Day come from?
It’s thought to originate from Roman times and it used to be called Lupercalia, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. It marked the start of springtime and boys would draw girls names from a box. Whoever they chose was who they would be in a relationship with and sometimes they’d get married. What is cool is that they would wear their hearts pinned to their sleeves for a week to show their true feelings. That’s where the phrase “wearing your heart on your sleeve” comes from.
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Historians are uncertain what stories about Valentine are true. It is known that there was a church dedicated to him in ancient Rome, and he is recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. There were a number of Valentines recognized as saints, but the one who is most commonly referred to is a priest from the third century who was commemorated on February 14th, which has become the Valentine’s Day holiday. There are a number of legends surrounding Saint Valentine, some of which involve him conducting marriages, but none are supported by historical evidence. Another legend is that Valentine befriended the daughter of a jailer while he was imprisoned and gave her a card that he had signed, beginning the romantic tradition of the holiday.
The first festivals of Lupercalia involved sacrificing a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for purification). They’d then dip the goat in sacrificial blood and drag it through the streets slapping (gently, apparently) women with it. Instead of being utterly repulsed by this, women would queue up to be slapped by the dead goat in hope that it’d make them more fertile in the coming year.
The Christian church picked up on Lupercalia and decided to rename it after St Valentine, a priest from Rome in the third century AD. Emperor Claudius II banned marriage because he believed that married men made unproductive soldiers. Valentine, thinking this rule was unfair, decided to marry people in secret against Emperor Claudius II’s wishes. Emperor Claudius II over-reacted to this news in the way that third century Emperors tended to do and threw Valentine in jail, sentencing him to death. Valentine fell in love with the jail keepers daughter and when sentenced to death of 14 February, he wrote her a letter written from your Valentine.
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The holiday began as a feast to celebrate the decapitation of a third-century Christian martyr, or perhaps two. So how did it become all about love?
Feb. 14, sweethearts of all ages will exchange cards, flowers, candy, and more lavish gifts in the name of St. Valentine. But as a historian of Christianity, I can tell you that at the root of our modern holiday is a beautiful fiction. St. Valentine was no lover or patron of love. Valentine’s Day, in fact, originated as a liturgical feast to celebrate the decapitation of a third-century Christian martyr, or perhaps two. So, how did we get from beheading to betrothing on Valentine’s Day?
Ancient sources reveal that there were several St. Valentines who died on Feb. 14. Two of them were executed during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 269-270 A.D., at a time when persecution of Christians was common. How do we know this? Because, an order of Belgian monks spent three centuries collecting evidence for the lives of saints from manuscript archives around the known world.
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Valentine’s Day always had a springtime element to it and for many years 14 February marked the beginning of bird’s mating season. This, teamed with the story of St Valentine, added to the case that Valentine’s Day should be a day of love.
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In 1375, Chaucer wrote: ““For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”