Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Religious (and Pagan) Roots of Valentine's Day

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I was beaten with clubs and beheaded,
Buried under the cover of darkness, 
Disinterred by my followers.
Any you commemorate my martyrdom by sending each other chocolates?

So goes an Internet meme about St. Valentine, whose feast day was recently commemorated on February 14.

I doubt many people thought about who the real St. Valentine behind Valentine’s Day, busy as we all were buying cards and chocolates and whatever.

As it turns out, there were several of them. But the one who is most commonly associated with the special day of love and romance was a priest in the Roman Empire who helped persecuted Christians during the reign of Claudius II. 

For his actions on behalf of persecuted believers, he was thrown in jail and beheaded on February 14.

So how did a saintly figure who was martyred for his faith become associated with chocolates, dinner out, cards and roses?

According to the American Catholic website, the roots of St. Valentine's Day lie in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, dedicated by the ancient Romans to the god Lupercus, a god of fertility.

Celebrated February 13-15, the festival featured, among other things, drunken young men running naked through the streets. As they ran, they spanked or struck women with animal skin thongs to bring about good luck for getting pregnant.

During the festival, young women would also place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name, and the two would become paired for the festival, or longer.

In the fifth century, when Christianity had become the religion of the empire, Pope Gelasius I decided to get rid of the pagan festival by changing the focus from Lupercus to St. Valentine.

Men could still seek the affections of women during the celebration, but now they gave out messages of admiration that included Valentine's name.

The next step along the way in popularizing the day of love goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe, where there was a folk belief that birds chose their partners in the middle of February.

This led to February 14 being observed as a day to write love letters and send small gifts.

The medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer  also played a role. In his poem Parliament of Fowls, he links the idea of love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day. 

In the poem, he refers to February 14 as the day birds and humans come together to find a mate.

“For this was on Saint Valentine’s day, when every fowl comes there his mate to take,” he writes, later adding that “You know that on Saint Valentine’s day . . . you come to choose–and then fly your way–your mates, as I your desires enhance.”

To round out this brief history about Valentine’s Day, you might be interested to know that the skull of the saint is reputed to be preserved in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome

Other bits of his skeleton can be found in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England and France. 

Finally, about those other St. Valentines. If one day of romance isn’t enough, you can also celebrate the special day on November 3 (St. Valentine of Viterbo), on January 7 (St. Valentine of Raetia) and on July 25 (St. Valentina, a woman who was martyred in Palestine in A.D. 308).

So, there you go—a bit of church and ancient history to go with your chocolates.

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