A Brief (Bloody) History of Valentine’s Day

Share the flowers!

While many may be tempted to call Valentine’s Day a Hallmark holiday, the origins of this day set aside for lovers has a history that dates far back into antiquity. While February 14th is set aside nowadays for flowers, candy and cards with little hearts drawn on them, the first celebrants of this holiday used the bloody hides of sacrificed goats and dogs to flog their paramour. Sounds sexy, right?

Valentine’s Day has come a long way from its Roman origins, thankfully. According to professor Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado, the holiday stems from the pagan feast of Lupercalia, a festival spanning several days in mid-February. Not much is known about the origin of Lupecalia other than that it was believed to have been celebrated as far back as the founding of Rome around 750 BCE and gradually transformed into different iterations as Christianity began replacing pagan holidays.

At its heart, Lupercalia was a festival of fertility, when men and women, drunk on wine, often participated in a “love lottery,” drawing names from jar and pairing up. During the festival there was plenty of revelry and, at some point, both dogs and goats were sacrificed and skinned. These hides were used to hit young maidens who had lined up for the event, believing that being beaten with the bloody skin of these animals increased their fertility and would help them have many children in the future. Makes a heart-shaped box of chocolates sound even more appealing, huh?

Rather than deny folks their festivals, the Catholic Church began renaming and re-purposing pagan holidays. In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius decided to name February 14th after a martyr who had suffered for his beliefs, Saint Valentine. Executed by Emperor Claudius II in the 3rd century AD for marrying couples as Christians (a rather unfavorable religion at the time) and trying to convert people, St. Valentine was first beaten and then beheaded outside the Flaminian Gates in Rome.

While there are accounts of Valentine’s execution, there is much debate as to how his martyrdom became associated with a day for lovers, other than the date of his beheading. Many historians see wide gaps in the observation of Valentine’s Day and argue it come into practice in modern times thanks to the crafty storytelling of the likes of Shakespeare and Chaucer, who reference it in their tales. Perhaps on reading about a festival of love, folks decided a day dedicated to lovers and flowers (though perhaps not dead dog skins) was a good thing to have on the calendar.

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