Saturday, February 13, 2010

Origins of Valentine's Day

Did you know that Valentine’s Day has its roots way back in Roman history and was not really an innocent day to declare your (anonymous) admiration for your heart’s desire?

February takes its name from Juno Februata, the Roman Goddess of love and during that month, a holiday was devoted to her. It was also during this month, around 13th-15th that the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated – the time when love lotteries took place.

The names of young maidens would be written on billets of paper to be picked out by the boys. The two would then be partnered for the whole festival. Some sources state that this process put together the pairings for the erotic games that followed. These random pairings often led to much longer relationships.

The main event of the festival took place on February 15th, with animal sacrifice and ritual flagellation. After the slaughter of a goat and a dog, young men would run naked through streets, whipping women and crops with the flayed hide of the goat to promote fertility.

This festival was celebrated in this way as late as the 6th century CE, although by the late 5th century CE, the Christian Church had already taken steps to put an end to it, by introducing a lottery of Saints, rather than maidens. Whichever Saint was a boy selected was the one he was to study for the coming year.

Ritual flagellation and sacrifice was declared to be immoral and Pope Gelasius made a priest called Valentine the patron Saint of Romance/Lovers, although as a chaste man, his life story was somewhat embellished to make it more interesting! Martyred on February 14th for disobeying the ban on Christianity, he allegedly cured the jailor’s daughter of blindness. They fell in love, but their love could not save the priest and on the eve of his execution, he managed to sneak a note to the girl, and simply signed it “from your Valentine”.

The Church’s new take on the festival proved to be unpopular and within a couple of hundred years, the Church had given up on the Saint lottery and stopped celebrating the feast of St Valentine. By the 15th century, the Lovers’ Lottery had returned to England. Bachelors would draw the name of a maiden and would then be duty bound to attend and protect her for the coming year.

And what of the first Valentine cards? You could argue that these were the Romans’ billets selected at Lupercalia, or perhaps the martyred Priest’s note to his young love. Modern Valentine’s cards are attributed to the Duke of Orleans, kept prisoner in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. He wrote countless love poems to his wife during his imprisonment, and around 60 of these still remain in the British Museum.

By the 17th century it was commonplace to hand make a card for the object of your desire; in the late 18th century a book was published with suitable verses for those young men struggling to compose their own. Shortly afterwards the first cards were printed, although these were limited and were known as “mechanical Valentines”. When postal costs were reduced in the 19th century, mailing cards became more popular.

The possibility of mailing a card brought a new dimension to giving Valentines. Now anonymity was possible, and cards began to be quite racy. Sexually suggestive verses were included in great numbers of cards, causing alarm in Victorian society.


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