Friends, Romans and Countrymen…Send me your women!
The Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia from February 13-15. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. They believed that this would make the women fertile.
Young women would voluntarily line up for this. The festival also included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then, celebrate the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.
Emperor Claudius II executed two men, both named Valentine. One of them, a priest, was charged and convicted of marring young couples in love without the permission of the church. He was sent to prison, but in a twist of fate, when the emperor’s own daughter became ill, the Priest Valentine, a healer, was sent for and he healed her, but also fell in love with her. That inspired him to send her a love note signed from your Valentine.
On Feb. 14, in the 3rd century, the Catholic church – never one to miss a marketing opportunity – ordered martyrdom for St. Valentine with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.
Later, Pope Gelasius I in the 5th century combined St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But the festival was more of a theatrical interpretation of what it had once been. The Pope was, understandably, less than thrilled with Lupercus custom. So he changed the lottery to have both young men and women draw the names of saints whom they would then emulate for the year (a change that no doubt disappointed a few young men). Instead of Lupercus, the patron of the feast became Valentine. For Roman men, the day continued to be an occasion to seek the affections of women, and it became a tradition to give out handwritten messages of admiration that included Valentine’s name.
As the years went on, the holiday grew sweeter. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized it in their work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. Handmade paper cards became the tokens-du-jour in the Middle Ages.
There was also a conventional belief in Europe during the Middle Ages that birds chose their partners in the middle of February. Thus the day, February 14th, was dedicated to love, and people observed it by writing love letters and sending small gifts to their beloved. Legend has it that Charles, duke of Orleans, sent the first real Valentine card to his wife in 1415, when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (He, however, was not beheaded, and died a half-century later of old age.)
Eventually, the tradition made its way to the New World. The industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards in the 19th century. And in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo., began mass producing valentines. February has not been the same since.