History of Valentine's Day
" St. Valentine's Day really is a pagan festival "It has something to do with Romans."What exactly?" I asked a number of people. Most just looked mystified, some railed against the commercialization of the day, and a couple of smart alecs made a silly Romans/ romance joke.
There really is a St. Valentine, in fact, some say there might have been as many as three. And St. Valentine's Day really is a pagan festival, so those of you who bemoan the commercialization etc, take heart in the very "un-establishment" origins of the day.
Legend has it that February was much beloved by the Romans for reasons of fertility, and involved a sexual rite of passage for young men. Lupercus was the god of fertility and purification. Sacrifices to him protected the livestock and, apparently, also human progeny to come. Women were flogged with a februa, or the skin of an animal slaughtered for Lupercus in the name of purification. This was supposed to ease childbirth and promoted fertility.
Also in February, and related to the same deity, was a feast whereby the names of all available young women were written on pieces of paper, or billets, and placed in a container. Young men drew a piece of paper with a name to see who would be their partner for the year. This is sometimes assumed as the reason for the love letters.
From here on there are differing interpretations. One says that in the 3rd century CE, Emperor Claudius III decided that married men made bad soldiers, and he forbade young men from marrying. A pesky priest called Valentine would nevertheless marry young couples in secret. He was eventually found out and imprisoned. The last letter he wrote, before he was executed on February 14, was to his jailer's daughter, signed "from you Valentine." That is why we send out notes and cards today, not with our names, but with this salutation, in honor of the man who kept love alive in hard times.
The other version says that by the 5th century CE, Christianity was strong and seeking to become stronger. The Chuch was dealing with pagan practices, either by bringing them into the Christian fold, or by deeming them unacceptable. The lottery for sexual partners was naturally horrific to the higher-ups, and in attempting to take the sting from it, they deemed that it be anonymous and merely symbolic. It was named after a man they claimed was a Christian saint, also executed for his beliefs in the 3rd century, like the other Valentine.
Many Valentines have been written since, some famous and others not; although, today it is believed that the first modern Valentine was sent by the Duke of Orleans to his wife in France, while he was still a guest of the English state in the Tower of London.
The US is likely the birthplace of the commercial side of Valentine's Day. It was here that one Miss Esther Howland decided to produce and sell Valentine's Day "billets doux" in the 1850s, in the process doing a massive $5,000-a-year business. That took off, clearly, because eventually the traditional Valentines that were sent out, elaborate affairs of lace and crochet with clever poems and acrostics, haven't been seen in the last 100 or so years.
We've got our own way of making Valentine's Day more aesthetically pleasing than a mere Hallmark card, though, and this takes the form of fresh flowers, gourmet chocolate and, of course, jewelry. In keeping with its pagan roots, we don't just acknowledge love on this day, but also fertility, by consuming aphrodisiacs such as oysers, asparagus, and the like.
Vive le Valentine!