Many fertile pagans, one Pope, three ex-saints, an old poet, a few industries and I wish you a Happy Valentine's Day

BlogHer Original Post

Valentine's Day -- a day with a funky history if ever there was one. Not true the old tales of a sweet man sitting in a prison tower sending beribboned love letters to his beloved, carried in the beak of a willing dove -- a dove ready to coo and deliver one heartfelt missive after another into the waiting and trembling hands of the beloved.

The roots of this holiday are in the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, held on February 15th. Lupercalia was all about securing fertility and keeping out evil. Two male youths, wearing animal skins, ran around Rome slapping people with strips of goat skin called Februa (as in February). Goats were considered to be the symbol of fertile sexuality. Other reports have the festival include a "sex lottery" where young boys would draw the names of women who were to be their sexual partners for the year. Lupercalia lasted until the end of the 5th century when Pope Gelasius I converted the day to February 14th and named it in honor of St Valentine.

But which Valentine? There were three of them. One was martyred in Africa, one was a bishop in Italy and one was a priest in Rome.

Then the legends start to get even deeper - and we see the story emerge that Valentine was a man imprisoned who fell in love with the daughter of his jailer. Or, there is the tale that marriages of young men were forbidden because the then ruling emperor thought that single men made better soldiers, and a priest named Valentine married them off anyway.

The poet Chaucer, linked the feast day to romance when, in 1381, he wrote a poem on the occasion of the engagement of England's Richard II and Anne of Bohemia:

...For this was on St. Valentine's Day,
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate...

In England, people began making cards by hand, but Valentine's cards did not become big in the United States until the 1850s, when Esther A. Howland, a Mount Holyoke graduate and early fenmale entrepreneur, began mass-producing them. An industry was born.

And then, as the final coup de gras, the Roman Catholic Church sent Saint Valentine to the Discard Bin of Former Saints when in 1969 they removed the feast days of saints whose origins were considered questionable.

So much for sainthood.

But, questionable origins aside, I still enjoy a frilly card and a gooey sentiment or two. I'm just glad the guys with goatskins aren't running around anymore.

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