Happy Lupercalia!*

*Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day.  But bear with me and the title will make sense in a minute.

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

Ahh, Valentine’s Day the bane of both single and coupled people the world over. If you’re single, Valentine’s Day is just a less than subtle reminder that you are a cat or two short of spinsterhood. If you’re in a relationship, then there is the societal pressure to be romantic, to make the grand gesture to prove your devotion – no one wins but the greeting card companies, florists and chocolate makers.

It would be easy to say that Valentine’s Day was created as a marketing ploy (like Mother’s and Father’s day were), but in fact, Valentine’s day has been around a lot longer than ad agencies and marketing firms. In fact, it dates back as far as the Middle Ages. The oldest known valentine still in existence today is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.  In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.

But why exactly do we celebrate Valentine’s day?

Most of us have heard of the legend of Valentine, a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Other stories suggest that Valentine was himself imprisoned and actually sent the first “valentine” greeting after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.

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While it may be that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death, others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.

Lupercalia

Those ancient Romans sure knew how to party.

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity and but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.

Whatever the case, whether you are single or not so single, pro-Valentine’s or ready to stage your own anti-Valentine protest, grab a box of chocolates and enjoy the day.

2 thoughts on “Happy Lupercalia!*

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