The History of Valentine’s Day

February 14th. Valentine’s Day. Snuck up on you again, didn’t it? This year you’ll be able to make up for it by doing something really special. You’re going to do like the Romans did: Cover yourself in blood, go streaking downtown and whip any strangers you see with leather straps.

Well, actually, that’s the Lupercalia Festival, which was on February 15th, but it’s probably related to Valentine’s Day. Here’s what the internet taught me:

  • Two brothers raised by a wolf started Rome, a city/state/nation which became pretty successful.

  • Citizens of Rome honored their founders with Lupercalia, or the “Wolf Festival,” where they killed some dogs and goats then covered two naked boys in the entrails.
  • Naturally, the boys would laugh. Their laughter signified the beginning of the festivities.
  • “Festivities” meant arming yourself with goat leather straps and running naked through town.
  • Bystanders would be flogged with these goat skin strap things, also called februa.
  • Nobody had a clue why they were doing any of this, except that it seemed very Roman, and being Roman was “in.”

That’s right, “February” means “Month of the Goat Leather Whipping Strap.”

So far, so good. We have a holiday that looks absolutely nothing like the one we currently celebrate, and it’s full of violence and improper behavior. Now all we need is to locate the historical figure who transforms it into something which almost resembles our current holiday.

  • 296 A.D.: A priest named Valentine married soldiers before they went off to war.

  • Emperor Claudius II wasn’t a fan of soldiers being married.
  • Claud had Valentine arrested, because that’s what emperors do when you disagree with them.
  • Valentine was a model prisoner, and even debated with Claudius over their belief systems. This won the emperor’s respect.
  • Claudius killed Valentine, because that’s what emperors do when you earn their respect.
  • His last testament to a friend was signed “From Your Valentine.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Some familiar bits of Valentine’s Day are starting to surface, and all we have to do is get the calendar updated and remove the old holiday.

Pope Gelasius woke up 200 years later and had the following conversation:
“Ugh, it’s not Lupercalia again is it?”
One of his popelets, “No, that’s tomorrow.”
“I’m going to do something about all this shameless streaking and whipping.”

  • Pope G issues an edict forbidding the celebration of Lupercalia.

  • Many dogs and goats express their support for this decision. Most humans are okay with leaving the dogs and goats alone, but miss acting like freshmen on pledge week.
  • Gelasius provides everyone with St. Valentine’s Day, a day to write your friends nice letters.
  • People write boring platonic notes to their friends for nearly a thousand years.
  • Chaucer writes about birds mating on Valentine’s Day, and the holiday rebounds to at least an R-rating. V-Day popularity grows in the next few centuries now that it’s more about hooking up.
  • Hand-made cards made of romantic stuff, like lace, pretty ribbons, and flying babies became popular. (Eh, Victorian repression.)

Finally, some schmuck in a top hat and monocle saw the potential of a holiday where everyone felt obligated to send cards to anyone they cared about. He got an estimate on a printing press, cardstock, and “frilly, pretty scraps,” quickly calculated the ROI, and proceeded to commercialize sentiment.

Now you know why every year you are pressured into finding deals on candy, flowers, and jewelry for Valentine’s Day. If you didn’t, you’d have to run in a naked, bloody mob spanking strangers with belts.

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