Valentine’s Day didn’t begin with a pair of star-crossed lovers or a hallmark greeting card campaign — it started with a bunch of half-naked Romans running through the streets whipping women with strips of goat hide to cure their infertility.
In ancient times February 15 was the Roman feast of Lupercalia, which also included one other rather interesting tradition: a lottery in which young men would draw the names of teenage girls from a box. The lucky, or not so lucky, girl would then be the fellow’s sexual partner during the remaining year. Often the lady would receive a gift or a greeting in the name of Juno, a Roman goddess. Was this the precursor of the Valentine’s Day card?
Unsurprisingly, the church didn’t quite like all this carrying on so they did what they usually did with deeply ingrained pagan festival — they rebranded it. The date was changed from February 15 to February 14, and the lottery was expanded to allow girls to pick names as well. Now, the names were of Christian saints and the lucky ones who drew the names had to imitate the saints’ actions for the rest of the year. It didn’t catch on.
The holiday was also renamed in honour of St Valentine, but it’s still not clear just who he was or what he did. One legend says he was jailed by the Romans for not giving up on his Christian faith and, while in jail, healed his jailer’s daughter. Before being executed he wrote her a letter signed ‘from your Valentine’
Another version of the legend is that, when the Roman emperor Claudius banned his soldiers from getting married (he thought it turned them into sissies), Valentine carried out ‘underground’ weddings. When Claudius found out he tried to convert Valentine to paganism. Valentine in turn tried to make a good Christian out of Claudius and was beaten and beheaded for his pains.
Whatever the truth is, we know that he did actually exist as a tomb was found in Rome dedicated to St Valentine. So the next time you’re griping about buying a Valentine’s card or gift, just remember it beats getting beheaded — or whipped with goat hide.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 13th, 2011.