We are approaching the festival of love, the favourite of card-manufacturers, florists and chocolate-makers everywhere: St Valentine’s Day. Cynics tell us that this is nothing but a “Hallmark Holiday”. In fact, like the British Mothering Sunday (often confused with the more recent American Mothers’ Day) and the German Fathers’ Day, Valentine is actually the modern incarnation of an ancient tradition.
The earliest form of the holiday, though actually held on the 15th, was the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a name derived from “lupus”, meaning wolf. It commemorated the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who were said to have been suckled by a she-wolf as babies, and was also sacred to the god Lupercus, or Faunus, a god similar to Pan who protected flocks from wolves. It involved young men dressed in goatskins running through the streets and striking people with whips: it was believed that any woman struck became fertile. There was also wild dancing and a general celebration of animal passions and instincts.
In other words, Lupercalia was an excuse for a huge public orgy.
The transfer of the annual love-in to St Valentine’s Day almost certainly has nothing to do with the saint. In fact, 14th February is the feast of two St Valentine’s, although many scholars believe they were actually the same man. He was either a Roman doctor or a bishop of Terni; but, whichever, he was martyred in the 3rd Century. In spite of later fictions trying to give some explanation, there’s no genuine connection between St Valentine and love.
There are actually two explanations for the holiday, though in all probability both are partly true. One is the Christianisation (and sanitisation) of the Lupercalia orgy; the other is the fact that mid-February is associated with the mating-rituals of birds.
Some of the earliest literary references reflect the link with birds. In the late 14th Century, Chaucer wrote in The Parliament of Fowls:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
While Shakespeare wrote two centuries later in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past;
Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?
An early reference to a recognisable Valentine’s Day custom also comes from Shakespeare. One of Ophelia’s songs in Hamlet (probably a traditional song Shakespeare was quoting) begins
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine:
This reflects the belief that the first person you see on the morning of the 14th is destined to be your True Love. It also shows that the idea of being someone’s “Valentine” was in common use by the end of the 16th Century.
Another Valentine’s Day tradition, which certainly had its origins in Lupercalia, was the Valentine lottery, in which names of partners for the day (and maybe the night too) were drawn at random. Robert Burns refers to this:
Yestreen at the Valentine’s dealing
My heart to my mou’ gied a sten,
For thrice I drew ane without failing,
And thrice it was written, Tam Glen.
Valentine cards and gifts have been exchanged since at least the early 17th Century, and possibly longer. At first they were handmade, but printed cards were available early in the 19th Century, and the custom grew with the burgeoning greeting-card industry. Until recently, the day was purely a chance for would-be lovers to get together, and Valentine cards were always unsigned, the recipient having to try to guess the sender. In recent decades, it’s expanded to be a more general celebration of love and relationships, with little surviving of its original meaning.
So, here we have the modern card/flowers/chocolate-fest, a far cry from the excesses of the Lupercalia. Wouldn't it be more fun go back to the era of goatskins, orgies and mayhem? – purely in the interest of authenticity, of course.
Perhaps not. Goatskins are so hard to get hold of these days.