February 14, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

The Historian: St Valentine through the Ages

Historians have long argued that, like all our best holidays, Valentine's Day was pagan in origin. On February 14 the Romans observed Juno Februata, a feast honoring the queen of the heavens, who presided over marriage and childbirth. The next day, they celebrated Lupercalia, an ancient festival of sexual license honoring Lupercus, god of fertility.

The festival opened in the Lupercal, a cave carved into the Palatine hill. After sacrificing he-goats, naked youths covered in blood donned loin cloths from the skins of the animals, then ran into the city, striking women they encountered with strips of goatskin called februa, from februare, meaning to purify. The idea was to purify in hope of fertilization - whether flocks, crops, or humans.

Pretty rowdy, but not a bad system, in a way. The guys get a chance to show off, while the girls see what the guys have to offer.

Over the centuries, Lupercalia's original spontaneity of boys chasing girls purportedly gave way to a lottery. Girls decorated love letters and put them in a large urn. Boys would draw these out and court the chosen girl until the next festival.

The early Christians, less concerned with fertility than sanctity, made a few crucial modifications. Boys drew the names of saints, whose lives they were to emulate for the year. The feast's name was also changed at some point to honor St. Valentine - although no one knows for sure which St. Valentine.

There were dozens. One favorite candidate is Valentine of Terni, who was imprisoned by Claudius Caesar II for overseeing the marriages of Roman soldiers, who were required by law to stay single. Martyred in 269 C.E., St. Valentine came to be endowed with some of the features of benevolent gods, including an interest in romance and fertility among the young. The crocus, which flowers mid-February, was dedicated to him.

Pagan practices continued, despite church efforts to suppress them. Lupercalia remained popular until 494, when Pope Gelasius replaced it with the "Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary." Or so we were taught in history of religion courses.

But now a medievalist at UCLA, Henry Ansgar Kelly, has come along, arguing that Alban Butler, author of "Butler's Lives of the Saints," essentially made up the whole church part of the story in the mid-18th century. "To abolish the heathen's lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honor of their goddess Februata Juno," wrote Mr. Butler, "several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets

given on this day." It was Butler, says Mr. Kelly, who first conceived the notion that the custom of sending love notes on February 14 was associated with Juno Februata and Lupercalian purification.

In his book, "Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine," Mr. Kelly argues that it was really Geoffrey Chaucer, at the end of the 14th century, who was the first person to promote St. Valentine's Day as a love-cult. The problem is that Chaucer put the day at the beginning of May, when winter is well and truly over, and all the birds are present and ready to choose their mates for the year (thus his "Parliament of Fowls"). Mr. Kelly says that Chaucer was thinking of the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa on May 3, not the St. Valentine martyred by Claudius.

What had turned the poet's mind to thoughts of love was the upcoming marriage of his employer. He wrote his "Parliament of Fowls," suggesting parallels in courtship between humans and birds, in honor of King Richard II's engagement to Anne of Bohemia on May 3, 1381. He needed to attach his poem to an appropriate saint's feast day. But May 3 was already given over to an observance of Christ's crucifixion - a little heavy for romance, says Mr. Kelly. So Chaucer chose Valentine of Genoa, projecting onto the day whatever he wanted, which was springtime exuberance.

The idea of a mating-of-the-birds celebration took off in medieval Europe, but the date was shifted back to winter, because February 14 was much better known as the feast of St. Valentine (the martyr). The trouble is, there were hardly any birds around in February, and they were not about to choose any mates.

That didn't keep anyone from celebrating the holiday, which they did happily until Cromwell's Puritans banned Valentine's Day, along with Christmas, in 1644.

The holiday was revived by wealthy patrons in both France and Colonial America in the mid-18th century. Elaborate valentines of birds, hearts, Cupids, and flowers were exchanged.

But it was the Victorians who truly resurrected and reinvented Valentine's Day, as they did with so many holidays, incorporating old symbols into their new creation, the commercial Valentine card.

Valentine's Day is today the second most remunerative holiday after Christmas, with over 1 billion cards sent in America alone. More than 85% are bought by women, suggesting that Lupercalia lives.

St. Valentine, in the meantime, has been liturgically demoted. In 1969, the Catholic Church issued a reform calendar with Sts. Cyril and Methodius, two ninth-century Slavic scholars, replacing Valentine.