Valentine’s Day Bizarre Origins

Valentines Day Origins

The origins of Valentine’s Day, its namesake, and the date it’s celebrated on, are all shrouded in a murky cloud of paganism, Christianity, martyrdom, poetry, and a healthy dose of speculation. And here you thought Valentine’s Day was all about sappy cards, heart-shaped chocolates, red roses, sparkling jewelry, and fancy feasts!

Whip it. Whip it good.

Let’s first start with the subject of paganism. Some authors and scholars point to ancient Rome and the pastoral festival, Lupercalia, as the point of origin for Valentine’s Day. Because, allegedly, there’s nothing that screams love more than the whipping of women with the bloody hides of murdered goats!

Lupercalia was a festival partly dedicated to Lupercus, the god of shepherds, and observed on the anniversary of the founding of his temple on February 15. The festival also honored Lupa, the she-wolf who nursed the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Translated, Lupercalia means “Wolf Festival.” The purpose of the festival was to dispel evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility in its wake.

Romulus and Remus

(Left) Bronze statue of Romulus and Remus feeding from a wolf. (Right) Bronze Roman wolf head c. 1-100.

Celebrated near the cave of Lupercal, where Rome was believed to have been founded, the festival began with the sacrifice of two male goats (for fertility) and a dog (for purification) at the hands of the Luperci (an order of Roman high priests). The Luperci then cut strips from the animal hides, dressed themselves in the skin of the goats, and ran around the city slapping people with bloody animal hides.

Young women would crowd the pathway of the slashing Luperci, hoping they would be fortunate enough to be whipped. If a woman received a lashing, she would be blessed with fertility; and when she bore a child, the pain of childbirth would be subdued. I have a feeling that some expectant mothers of today might opt to being whipped by goat skin versus taking the 8-inch needle of an epidural, but that’s just speculation on my part.


Image: The Lupercalian Festival in Rome: Cupid and Personifications of Fertility encounter the Luperci dressed as dogs and goats. Artist, Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610)

By the 5th century, Christianity was on the rise and the public celebration of pagan rites had been outlawed. Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was ultimately outlawed by Pope Gelasius I (494–96). It’s suggested that Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with the “Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary” to “Christianize” the pagan ritual.

While some scholars and researchers have made the claim that Lupercalia gave birth to Valentine’s Day, there are others that reject that notion altogether. For those that disagree, I say “give them a good lashing of the goat hide!”

The martyr of love

Now onto the subject of Christianity and martyrdom. Here’s what we know about Saint Valentine: There wasn’t just one Saint Valentine.

There is little known about St. Valentine’s life, and whether or not the stories involve two (or three) different saints named Valentine or Valentinus. However, it is widely agreed that several early Christian martyrs were named Valentine.

Most acknowledge the saint(s) honored on February 14 are Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. Valentine of Rome was a priest in Rome who was martyred in 269, buried on February 14, and was added to the calendar of saints by Pope Galesius in 496. Valentine of Terni was a bishop of Terni, and was allegedly martyred in 273 during Emperor Aurelian’s persecution of Christians. Both men were buried to the north of Rome, at different locations along the ancient road Via Flaminia.


Image: (Left) Colored etching of St. Valentine blessing an epileptic. (Right) Another depiction of St. Valentine illustrates the differences in how the mysterious saint(s) is interpreted.

The legends associated with the saint are just as foggy as the actual identification of the man (or men).  

One legend suggests that Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape captivity in Roman prisons. Another submits that Valentine was a third century priest in Rome who was martyred for defying Emperor Claudius II ban on marriage for young men. Evidently, the Emperor believed that single men were more cutout for soldering than married men. Valentine continued to perform marriages in secret until he was discovered and then executed for defying the Emperor.

Regardless of which legend most appeals to you historically or emotionally, all depict the saint as a sympathetic figure. In Catholicism, Saint Valentine is officially known as Saint Valentine of Rome and commonly associated with “courtly love.”

Due to what little is known of the saint, the Roman Catholic Church decided to remove St. Valentine from the General Roman Calendar in 1969. However, the church still recognizes him as a saint in Roman Martyrolgy, associating him with the date of February 14th.

Poetry of love

Up to this point, you might be wondering where all the romance is – after all, it’s hard to get all warm-and-fuzzy thinking about martyrdom, the killing of goats, dogs, and the whipping women (okay, that may appeal to some of you).

Saint Valentine’s Day wasn’t directly linked to romantic love until the publication of the 699-line poem, Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer. In his “love bird” poem, Chaucer writes (translated excerpt):

For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,

When every fowl comes there his mate to take…

Following Chaucer’s poem, poetry became synonymous with romance and Saint Valentine’s Day; most famously represented in the form of Shakespeare’s most popular play, Hamlet.

Chaucer and Shakespeare

Image: (Left) Portrait of Chaucer from the 17th century. (Right) The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare.

From Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,

And dupp’d the chamber-door;

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more.

Valentine’s mass marketed

By the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers commonly exchanged small handmade gifts of affection and handwritten cards with their romantic interests. An American artist and entrepreneur took notice of the growing practice, and in 1840, Esther A. Howland began mass-producing ornate Valentine’s Day greeting cards.  Her cards became so beloved throughout the United States, she became known asThe Mother of the American Valentine.

Esther Howland

Image: (Left) “Yours For Ever” card by Howland. (Center) Esther Howland, carte-de-visite by Photographic Studio of J.M. Devine & Co. (Charlestown, Massachusetts, ca. 1870s). (Right) “Affection” card by Howland.

It wasn’t until 1913, that the greatest scourge ever imposed on man came into existence. Hallmark Cards, of Kansas City, Missouri began their vicious assault on hopeless men everywhere, when they began mass-producing Valentine’s Day greeting cards.

According to the Greeting Card Association, 145 million Valentine’s Day cards (not including classroom Valentines) are purchased annually, making Valentine’s Day the second most popular greeting card–giving occasion, after Christmas, which boasts a whopping 1.6 billion units purchased.

So big business huh? Yep. In 2018, U.S. consumers are expected to spend an average $143.56 on Valentine’s Day, an increase from last year’s $136.57, according to the annual survey released by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. Total spending is expected to reach $19.6 billion, up from $18.2 billion in 2017.

Today, the ever-evolving tradition continues to be celebrated in many different ways. Some will choose to celebrate this Valentine’s Day by treating their date to a nice dinner. Others may choose a sweet Hallmark card tied to a bouquet of flowers. And I bet there are a few of you… yes you… who will celebrate with the whip of goat hide. Whip it. Whip real good! 


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