Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Origins of Our Official "Love Day"

As Valentine's Day appraoches, I thought it would be good to reflect on where this holiday came from and why we think it's so importnat. My source for much of this content is "Extraordinary Origins Of Everyday Things" by Charles Panati.

The historical origins of Valentines Day:

Valentines Day has it origins in the (usually successful) efforts of the early Catholic church to eradicate pagan religions by co-opting pagan practices and holidays, and replacing them with Christian versions.

As early as the fourth century B.C. the Romans conducted a young man's right of passage to the god Lupercus. Teenage females would place their names in a box, from which they would be drawn by teenage males. The young lady whose name the man drew became his companion for the year, purposes of "mutual entertainment and pleasure (often sexual)." At the
end of that year another lottery would be held. Of course, the church was determined to snuff this business out, so they looked for a lover's with whom they could replace the pagan deity of Lupercus.

They found their man in a Valentine, a martyred bishop from two centuries past. In 270 A.D., the mad Roman Emperor Claudius II (NOT the same character as depicted in Robert Graves' "I, Claudius") issued an edict banning the institution of marriage because he believed that it undermined the morale of his soldiers by making them loath to leave their families on campaigns. Valentine, the bishop of Interamna sought to get around the edict by inviting young lovers to be married by him in secret. The Emperor found out about this, and had Valentine arrested. Impressed by the piety of the young priest, he attempted to convert him to Roman pagan beliefs in order to save him from execution.

Valentine refused to renounce Christianity, and attempted instead to the Emperor. This didn't work out, and on Feb. 24, 270 Valentine was clubbed, stoned, and beheaded. Legend says that while in jail, Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer, and by his unswerving faith miraculously restored her sight. His farewell message was signed "From your Valentine".

The church viewed this man as the ideal replacement for Lupercus. So in 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius outlawed the Lupercan festival, but kept the lottery, intending to keep the game of chance-loving Romans interested in a Christian version of the festival. The names of young ladies were supplanted by the names of saints whose lives the drawer was to emulate for a year.

Of course adolescent young men of the time were likely much disappointed by this change, but eventually the new practice, whose spiritual overseer was it's patron saint - Valentine, caught on. The old pagan time-frame of mid-February was also kept, hence the present Valentines Day on February 14.

See Panati's book for further details on the practice of sending Valentine cards, and using "XXX" to indicate kisses.


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