Thursday, February 9, 2012

Valentine's Day-Saints and Pagans

St. Valentine’s Day-Revamping a Saint and a Pagan God

On Tuesday, men all over the Western Hemisphere will be scrambling to pick out the perfect mushy card, decide what color roses best express their feelings, and try to decide if dinner is enough, or if jewelry is warranted.  School rooms across the U.S. will be full of heart shaped cookies and red construction paper.  Many lonely singles will be feeling  blue about not having a Valentine.  So how did we get to this holiday of love? 

About 2200 years ago, the Romans had a favorite holiday called Lupercalia, which originated when Rome was still a place for shepherds with their flocks of sheep.  Wolves (lupus means wolf) were a constant threat, so a priest would sacrifice goats and dogs at the mouth of a cave on the Palatine hill. This sacrifice was meant to appease the god Lupercus for the year so that he would keep wolves away from the shepherds and their flocks.

 Eventually it evolved into a festival that was full of singing and dancing, and lots of eating.  One of the most entertaining events of the holiday actually happened the night before.  All of the girls in the town would write their names on scraps of paper and throw them in an urn.  Picture the scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when all of the names are drawn for the competition, and you will get an idea of what happens next.  A boy would come and choose a name. For the remainder of the holiday, they would be paired for games and dancing and other events.  At the end of the festivities, they would likely end up engaged.  This is probably how the day originally became associated with the idea of lovers.

When Christianity began to spread across Italy, celebrating Lupercalia was frowned on, since it was in honor of the god Lupercus.  Many people did not want to stop celebrating what was seen as a very fun time, so the church eventually found a way to add it to the Christian calendar.  They created the day St. Valentine’s Day, and placed it on February 14.  The history of St. Valentine is somewhat murkier than the history of Lupercalia, but I will attempt to explain it.

There are several different explanations about who St. Valentine was, and why we celebrate him. The first one is that there was a Roman priest named Valentine about 2000 years ago.  He was arrested by the emperor Claudius II for refusing to pray to Roman gods.  Claudius was furious and ordered his execution.  The prison guard who was taking him away had made friends with Valentine.  It was known that the guard had a blind daughter.  Knowing this, Valentine gave him a note to give to the daughter.  When she opened it, she could miraculously see.  Guess what the note was supposed to have said!  “From your Valentine.” 

Another story has a different Valentine disobeying Claudius in a totally different way.  Claudius had forbidden young men to marry because it made them bad soldiers. He didn’t want lovesick, homesick men who couldn’t think of anything but their wives home alone. Valentine married the couples in secret.  Again, an enraged Claudius had the priest killed.  Wonder why his nickname was Claudius the Cruel?  It’s entirely possible that one of the Valentine’s was executed on Lupercalia, thus forever linking the two. 

Whether it’s one story, or both, Valentine’s Day came to be associated with the idea of love and romance.  It combined the ancient holiday of Lupercalia with the newer holiday.  As it spread across Europe, local traditions became a part of the celebration.  In England, birds were said to return from their trip south around February 14th.  That is how the dove became a symbol of the holiday.  Children would go from door to door singing for treats,
sort of like Halloween today.  They also sang this song:
                                      Good morning to you, Valentine:
                                              Curl your locks as I do mine-
                                              Good morning to you, Valentine.

The Italians, of course, were a bit more romantic.  Valentine’s Day was celebrated with poetry and music in flower gardens throughout the country.  For a time, this behavior was outlawed.  In France, there were huge dances, and the men gave out flowers.  This was also temporarily outlawed, and the French stopped celebrating Valentine’s Day for quite a while. The Germans, always more serious, drew the names of saints, and then used the story of that saint for their role model for the year. 

During the Renaissance period, interest in the old Greek and Roman myths resurfaced, and Cupid became a symbol of love once again.  One of the earliest know Valentines was written by the Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in the 1400s.  He actually mentions both Cupid and St. Valentine.  Another Valentine, from 1477, was written by Margery Brews to John Paston.  Paper Valentines with fancy writing and decorations emerged in the 1600s.  The Puritans temporarily outlawed Valentine’s Day in England, but King Charles brought the holiday back.  It was in 1629 that the holiday crossed the Atlantic with John Winthrop in the form of a love letter, but the Puritans here frowned on the holiday too.  It wasn’t until the 1700s that its popularity began to spread here.  By then, a number of traditions had developed all over Europe, and they began to follow the immigrants as they traveled.

Queen Victoria gets the credit for transforming Valentine’s Day into an art form.  Between 1837 and 1901, Valentines went from decorated love letters to delicate, lacey cards covered with the various symbols of the holiday.  Silk or satin flowers, feathered birds, and even gifts were attached.  Later in her reign some smart businessmen began to mass produce them.  This was the beginning of the greeting card business.  The Golden Age of Valentines ended with Queen Victoria, but the holiday has a solid hold throughout most of the industrialized world.  Every year it becomes a little more commercialized, but for most of us, it remains a day to celebrate love. 

On Tuesday, we will celebrate thousands of years of love. So kiss your sweetheart, hug your kids, or grab a quick dinner with your best friend.  Call your mom, write a letter to a soldier, or take your dog for an extra long walk.  Love comes in many forms, and that is a message anyone can be proud of.


1 comment:

  1. Come back on Tuesday for a brief history of chocolate. Then it's back to the regular weekly posts, unless I find something else interesting to post in between.