Valentine's Day, also known as Saint Valentine's Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, is observed every year, throughout the world, on 14th February.
The day has both Christian and ancient Roman traditions, and the Catholic Church recognises at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. There are many legends surrounding these saints, from priests who defied emperors to perform marriages for young lovers, and to imprisoned saints who fell in love and signed their deathbed letter to their lover with “from your valentine". Some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death around A.D. 270. Perhaps the most plausible reason though, was to do with Lupercalia, the ancient pagan fertility festival, and the Christian church.
Lupercalia was celebrated on 15th February to honour Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. It was celebrated in the Lupercal, which was the sacred cave at the bottom of Palatine Hill, the centremost of the Seven Hills of Rome and one of the most ancient parts of the city. The origins of the name Lupercalia is believed to have come from the Ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia, a wolf festival (Latin: lupus), and the worship of Lycaean Pan (Greek equivalent to Faunus). Some historians describe a cult image of "the Lycaean god, whom the Greeks call Pan and the Romans Lupercus" which stood in the Lupercal.
Legend of the Lupercal
Romulus and Remus, the legendary twin founders of Rome were descended from Greek and Latin nobility through their mother, and King Amulius saw them as a threat to his rule. They were left on the bank of the Tiber River to die at the orders of the King and were saved by the god Tiberinus, Father of the River. It was in the Lupercal that legend says the twins were suckled and kept alive by a she-wolf.
So where do the Lupercalia celebrations come in?
The Lupercal had its own priestly order called the Luperci, priests of the fertility god Lupercus. These priests gathered at the Lupercal on Lupercalia and sacrificed goats and dogs, chosen due to their powerful sexual instinct. Skin was cut from these animals and the Luperci ran around the hill with thongs made from the skin. Any woman who came close would be struck with a thong, this blow was supposed to render a woman fertile. The rise in Christianity in Europe saw many pagan holidays being renamed and dedicated to the early Christian martyrs. Lupercalia was no exception. So, in 496 AD Pope Gelasius proclaimed that February 14 was to be the feast day in honor of Saint Valentine, therefore overshadowing the pagan festival.
Fast forward quite a few years to the Middle Ages, and we start to see the romantic connection to the day. Both Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticised it in their work, and it went on to gain popularity throughout Europe. The French and the English believed that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, therefore believing that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. Written Valentine’s greetings didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The earliest greeting that still exists today was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and wrote to his wife during this time. This can be viewed in the manuscript collection of the British Library in London.
Commercially available greetings cards were made available thanks to the industrial revolution. In 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo. changed the way we saw and celebrated Valentine's Day forever!
1. Klaas Zuidersma (https://www.thousandwonders.net/Palatine+Hill)
2. Lupercalia, Andrea Camassei, 1635 (Museo del Prado)