14/02: The history of Valentine's day

I was going through The News site and found something interesting on the history of Valentine's day. The article seems a bit brash but it makes for a good read if read with an open mind. It is written by Shahida Ejaz and can be read here. The relevant excerpt with regards to this post is posted below.

Valentine's Day postcard, circa 1910
Valentine's Day postcard, circa 1910

The origins of Valentine's day goes back to the time of the ancient Romans and a festival called Lupercalia. Celebrated on Feb. 15 every year, this pagan feast required the offering of an animal sacrifice to the gods in return for protection from the deities. Lupercalia was named after Lupercus, the ancient Roman god of fertility and husbandry and protector of herds and crops, and a hunter, especially of wolves. The Romans believed that Lupercus would protect Rome from packs of wolves which they thought often devoured their livestock and fellow Romans.

Assisted by Vestal Virgins, the Luperci or male priests conducted purification rites by sacrificing goats and a dog in the Lupercal cave on Palatine Hill, where the Romans believed the twins Romulus and Remus had been sheltered and nursed by a she-wolf before they eventually founded Rome. Clothed in loincloths made from sacrificed goats and smeared in their blood, the Luperci would run about Rome, striking women with februa, a thin strap made from skins of the sacrificed goats. The Luperci believed that the floggings purified women and guaranteed their fertility and ease of childbirth.

To the Romans, February was also sacred to Juno Februata, the goddess of febris ("fever") of love, and of women and marriage. On February 15, billets (small pieces of paper, each of which had the name of a teen-aged girl written on it) were put into a container. Teen-aged boys would then choose one billet at random. The boy and the girl whose name was drawn would become a "couple" joining in erotic games at feasts and parties celebrated throughout Rome. After the festival, they would remain sexual partners for the rest of the year. This custom was observed in the Roman Empire for centuries.

Once Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire the authorities decided to get rid of Lupercalia but couldn't because it was too embedded in the Roman psyche. However, it was not until 496 AD that the church at Rome was able to do anything about Lupercalia. Pope Gelasius changed it from February 15 to the 14th and called it St. Valentine's Day. It was named after one of that church's saints, who, in A.D. 270, was executed by the emperor for his beliefs and who had helped Roman soldiers marry secretly in violation of a decree by the emperor forbidding them to marry while serving in the army.

The church tried to whitewashed Lupercalia even further. Instead of putting the names of girls into a box, the names of "saints" were drawn by both boys and girls. It was then each person's duty to emulate the life of the saint whose name he or she had drawn. This was Rome's vain attempt to "whitewash" a pagan observance by "Christianizing" it. Though the church at Rome banned the de facto sexual lottery that took place young men still practiced a much toned-down version, sending women whom they desired handwritten romantic messages containing St. Valentine's name. Over the centuries, St. Valentine's Day cards became popular, and that is what we see today before us.

Readers interested in a toned down history of Valentine's day can read the Wikipedia entry regarding Valentine's day. It also gives an interesting perspective on how Valentine's day is celebrated in different countries of the world.
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