Love is in the air. From red roses to chocolates to jewelry, the modern day celebration of Valentine’s Day bears little resemblance to its ancient Roman and Christian roots.
In the middle of February, ancient Romans celebrated the fertility festival of Lupercalia. The festival opened with the sacrifice of a goat for fertility, and a dog for purification. The goat’s hide was turned into strips that were then dipped into the sacrificial blood. The strips were used to whip young women, who lined up for the beating because they believed it would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, a lottery paired up the city’s unmarried women and men for the remainder of the year. Sometimes, the lottery got it right, and a couple that fell in love was married at the end of the year.
During the 5th century, when Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire, Lupercalia was outlawed; in its place, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 Saint Valentine’s Day.
Saint Valentine was a third century priest during the reign of the Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had prohibited young people from marrying because he thought that unmarried men made better soldiers than men with wives and children. Valentine defied Claudius’ edict and performed marriages in secret. In 269 AD, Valentine was beaten, stoned and decapitated.
A legend associated with Valentine’s imprisonment and execution has done much over the centuries to establish him as a romantic figure. According to the story, while he was in prison, Valentine healed the daughter of one of the Roman judges who was to decide his fate, and he fell in love with her. On the day of his execution, he sent her a note and signed it “From your Valentine”, the salutation immortalized in Valentine’s Day greetings.
The association of the feast of Saint Valentine with greetings of love began to gain traction in medieval times; by 1400, written Valentine’s Day messages began to appear. Towards the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers of all social classes exchanged symbols of affection. By 1900, commercial cards began to replace handwritten notes, and at some point, Valentine’s Day morphed into the hugely successful commercial celebration of today.
In the United States, an estimated 200 million roses are grown for February 14, when 180 million Valentine’s Day cards will be exchanged, and six million couples will become engaged. The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that Valentine’s Day spending will reach a staggering $18.9 billion this year.
Here in Canada, we are less extravagant. According to the Retail Council of Canada, in 2013 Canadian shoppers averaged $37 on Valentine’s Day purchases. That same year in the United States, American shoppers spent an average of $130.97, and this year’s NRF survey suggests that amount will increase to $142.31.
The roots of Valentine’s Day go deep into the past, to a pagan fertility festival and the martyrdom of a priest. Since medieval times, it has been a day to express and exchange tokens of love. So whether it is a simple card or a diamond ring, whether you spend a little, a lot, or nothing at all on Valentine’s Day, love is in the air; breathe it in!
Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Contact her at email@example.com.