By in Holidays

The Valentine's Day Story

We are all familiar with the commercialism of modern Valentine's Day; the cards, the flowers, the chocolate, the disappointment, but where did it all originate and what does it really mean?

To understand we must journey back to February 14th in Ancient Rome. This was a holiday to honour Juno Februata, the Queen of the Roman Gods who was also known as the Goddess of Women and Marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the 'Feast of Lupercalia', an ode to the God of fertility. This was both a celebration of sensual pleasure and a time to meet and court a prospective mate. This spring holiday was held in honour of the God Lupercus, protector of the herd and crops. The Romans believed he would protect their flocks from the fierce wolves that roamed nearby woods and keep animals and people healthy and fertile through their dancing and singing. On the eve of this festival, young women would put their names in a ceramic jar and every young man would pick a name. They would be partners for the games and dancing for the duration of the festival. Sometimes the pairing of the children lasted an entire year, and often, they would fall in love and later marry.

In Rome, the Emperor Claudius, who was also known as Claudius the Cruel, was said to have imprisoned Bishop Valentine in 269 for Christian faith. The mad Emperor believed that if his men remained single his army would be larger because he wouldn't lose men to wanting to stay home with their family. A similar belief was held by Alexander the Great centuries earlier. Of course, there were some men who joined up just to get away from their wives.

Valentine defied the Emperor's decree and secretly wed soldiers of the Emperor's army forbidden to marry; a deed for which he was imprisoned and on February 14th beheaded. On the eve of his execution, Valentine, who had fallen in love with his jailer's blind daughter, wrote her a sonnet in ink that he squeezed from violets. His words are said to have made the woman see again. He signed his final note to her, "From Your Valentine", a phrase that has lasted through the centuries.

In AD 496, Pope Gelasius outlawed the pagan Lupercalan Festival, but he was clever to replace it with a similar celebration, although one deemed more suitable. He needed a "lovers" saint to replace the pagan deity Lupercus. The martyred Bishop Valentine was chosen as the patron saint of the new festival.

Pope Gelasius didn't get everything he wanted however. It is true that the pagan festival died out but he had further hoped people would emulate the lives of saints. Instead, they latched onto the more romantic aspect of Saint Valentine's religious life. While not immediately as popular as the more passionate pagan festival, eventually the concept of celebrating true love became known as Valentine's Day. In 1969, Pope Paul VI dropped it from the Catholic calendar and yet, to this day, it has endured.

Image Credit » Julie-Anne Michael

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