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Valentine's Day 2018: History & Origins

Red hearts and boxes of chocolate and the radiated anger from every jilted single person amplifies enough to heat a small office building. Annually, we go through the motions of Valentine’s Day, handing out love notes to those closest to us and finding new and unique ways of showing our affections. For many, it’s a happy, feel-good kind of day, but to those that know the origins of the holiday, it is quite ironic.

Valentine’s Day wasn’t always about sharing love. In fact, the history behind it is a muddied and often bloody and debaucherous mess that dates back to a time when Rome still stood. Depending on the version of the holiday’s origins, the placement of Valentine’s Day in the middle of February served one of two purposes. One popular theory is that the date is to commemorate the death of St. Valentine, the man for whom the holiday is named. Which St. Valentine the holiday is thought to celebrate is a mystery, however, as the Catholic Church makes mention of three different versions of who he was and why he was ultimately killed.

The Many Valentines

The first involves Roman Emperor Claudius II, who decried the marriage of young men, feeling they made better soldiers when not tied down by a wife and family. Valentine, a third-century priest, contested Claudius’ decision and performed secret marriages, leading to his execution. A second version pegged Valentine as a hero of imprisoned Christians and was caught trying to help them escape. The third story of St. Valentine is far more romantic and has him imprisoned after falling in love with the jailer's daughter.

Regardless of which version is closest to the truth, the final days of St. Valentine were tragic, making Valentine’s Day even more confusing. Further complicating the origins of the holiday is Lupercalia, a pagan celebration that is thought to have a direct link to Valentine’s Day. The Roman fertility festival was held in honor of Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and featured ritualistic sacrifices.

The Festival of Lupercalia

Roman priests of the Luperci order gathered at the cave that the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were prophesied to have been cared for by a she-wolf. The ceremony would proceed with the sacrifice of a goat and a dog before it moved back to the streets of Rome, where women lined up to be slapped with the pelt of the goat, which was thought to promote fertility over the coming year. The festivities continued with women placing their name in an urn, from which bachelors would randomly choose who they would be paired with over the year.

Deeming Lupercalia “un-Christian,” the festival was outlawed when Pope Gelasius officially declared Feb. 14 as St. Valentine’s Day. The concept of love still didn’t fuse with the holiday until the Middle Ages, when people of France and England determined that the mating season of local birds fell on Feb. 14. After romance crept its way into the strange holiday, the concept of the written Valentine later followed in the 15th century.

Tracing holidays back to their official roots can be a confusing and lengthy process. Sometimes, like in the case of St. Valentine’s Day, it’s best to look at the holiday for as it is and not for what it was derived from.