This week in ancient Rome, people celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The aim of this festival was to release energy for health and fertility. It honored the god called Lupercus, the protector of shepherds’ flocks against wolves, as well as the promoter of fertility among sheep.
The festival began with the sacrifice of two goats and a dog, after which the priests marched through Rome wearing only the skins of the recently sacrificed animals. They hit onlookers with straps made of goat skin. Childless women sought to be hit so they would be released from the embarrassment of having no children. Men pulled a name out of a jar to be matched with women for the duration of the festival. Often, the couple stayed together until the following year’s festival. Many fell in love and married.
“Saint” Valentine was a real person—or two! Some historians say there were two Christians named Valentine who were executed by the Emperor a few years apart during the feast of Lupercalia. Legends have unified these two Christian martyrs into one person, who has come to embody, in Christendom, some of the romance of the feast of Lupercalia.
Shortly before the year 500, Pope Gelasius I replaced the pagan celebration of Lupercalia by declaring February 14 a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine instead. The colors of Valentine’s Day are red (a holdover from the blood of animal sacrifice, but also of martyrdom) and white (left over from the milk used to clean off the blood but also a sign of fertility).
Shakespeare and Hallmark Cards contributed their share to the evolution of Valentine’s Day as a time to affirm your love for your sweetheart but also a time to express warm friendship to others. As for me, nothing against Hallmark, but I still prefer handmade valentines.
+ Phil Miller