It’s not yet Valentine’s Day, but in every gift store, flower shop or Hallmark aisle you’ll see reminders. On Etsy, where handmade items are king, you’ll find heart motifs being featured everywhere (and in this post, too). Valentine’s Day is an international holiday when couples celebrate romance with candy, flowers, cards, candlelit dinners and other exchanges of affection. From Australia to Taiwan, in Around the World you can read about how Valentine’s Day is celebrated.
I was surprised to learn, however, that the origins of this annual holiday can be found in a pagan practice in ancient Rome. According to National Public Radio writer Arnie Seipel in The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day, Valentine’s Day may have begun when “men hit on women by, well, hitting them.” Seipel explains that during the feast of Lupercalia, a goat and a dog were sacrificed, and their hides were used to whip women. For some strange reason, women were said to have believed this whipping would increase their fertility. The rite was followed up with a lottery in which men were paired up for the night with women—and sometimes longer, if the match was a good one.
Flash forward to the 3rd century, when the Emperor Claudius II executed two men named Valentine—one a priest and the other a bishop—resulting in their martyrdom which was subsequently commemorated by the Catholic Church on St. Valentine’s Day. When Pope Gelasius II combined St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia in the late 5th century with a festival intended, ironically, to get rid of pagan rituals, the event became a drunken, theatrical celebration of “fertility and love,” says Seipel. About the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day, which sounds a great deal like Valentine and means “lover of women.” You can begin to see how Valentine’s Day evolved into the celebration of love that it is today. Thankfully today’s holiday is a shadow of its original self.
It wasn’t until the 13th century, according to History.com’s History of Valentine’s Day, that Valentine’s Day became associated with love and romance, also the same time in mid-February when birds were believed to mate. According to Borgna Brunner, in Valentine’s Day History, a UCLA medieval scholar named Henry Ansgar Kelly claims Geoffrey Chaucer is behind the mating birds story. In 1381, he wrote a poem that celebrated the engagement between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. He linked the engagement, in his poem, with a feast day named “The Parliament of Fowls,” or the mating season for birds.
For this was on St. Valentine’s Day,
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.
By the 17th century, couples in Great Britain began exchanging letters or handmade cards that featured lace, ribbons, cupids and hearts. The tradition spread to the U.S., where purchased Valentine’s Day cards appeared in the 1850s when Esther Howland began mass-producing them. The commercial side of Valentine’s Day kept growing until now, when 62% of couples celebrate it with candy, flowers and other items. Between candy, jewelry, and flowers—more than 220 million roses, in fact—Americans spend more than $20 billion on Valentine’s Day every year.
Although sellers and shoppers alike realize there is much commercial profit to be gained on Valentine’s Day, somehow that doesn’t seem to detract from the desire to celebrate the holiday. Year-round, hearts have become symbols of love, affection, unity, strength and even sympathy. But on Valentine’s Day, hearts represent a special celebration of love.
© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.