When I was little, Valentine’s Day was one of my favorite holidays. Not so weird, in my opinion — like most developing humans I loved sugar, stuffed animals and compliments, the foundation upon which my Valentine’s Day was built. It was only later, when I ventured into the social world, that I realized how divisive the holiday truly is, and how dysfunctional its origins are.
When you’re in a relationship, the holiday is a beautiful day to talk about your feelings, spend time with that special someone and drop all of your money on that elusive, romantic-but-not-corny date. When you’re single, Valentine’s Day is a dismal reminder of all of the sex you’re not having. But as played out as it is now, the history of Valentine’s Day is far more interesting.
Tell me if this sounds familiar — St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers and advocate of all things kissy-kissy, risked his own life to marry young couples in ancient times. In gratitude, the church devoted a holiday to him, and the PDA-extravaganza that we know and love was born.
All of that seems to check out, relatively. In fact, experts among the Christian faith have traced the holiday back to not one, but multiple St. Valentine’s, all of whom martyred themselves in some way in the name of loooove. But historians have raised another theory of this special day in February, and it’s a bit more gruesome.
On February 15th, ancient Romans celebrated fertility and sacrifice in an occult festival known as Lupercalia. Legend holds that Roman priests ran through the streets with strips of freshly slaughtered goat hide. Every lucky young woman to be struck with the hide would see an increase in fertility.
Although this is contested, some historians theorize that there were also matchmaking lotteries, in which lucky boys and girls were selected, “Hunger Games” style, to … get to know each other during the ceremony. Sometimes, the young Roman gentlemen would reach out to their chosen partners with a written symbol of affection — perhaps the ancient origins of our treasured Valentines today.
As the Christian church rose to power, appalled by the savagery of the Lupercalia festival, they decided to rebrand, ditching the animal sacrifice and public lashings in favor of honoring the martyred St. Valentine.
As for the rest of the holiday? Unsurprisingly, a lot of it just boils down to capitalism. The iconic heart-shaped boxes of chocolate you’re so yearning to receive? A genius invention by British chocolatier Richard Cadbury, who first linked the sensual treat to the holiday when Victorians began to keep heart-shaped boxes as symbols of their lovers.
Presenting your lover with a (strangely expensive) bouquet of roses? Probably only because roses are among the hardiest flowers, and can travel long distances in the cold as a symbol of affection.
The point is, if your Valentine’s Day won’t be looking like the Hallmark expectations, that’s okay. Historically, we’ve come a long way from nudity in the streets. Out of concern for the goats, I don’t recommend the ancient fertility rituals adopted by the Romans — but otherwise, celebrate however you want.
Tell your friends and family you love them, kick back and prepare for the real holiday — Half-Price Chocolate Day on February 15th.
Gabi DiPaulo is the Living editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.