“It’s a Hallmark holiday” claim the skeptics. You need a card, a present, a meal in a restaurant. You’re obliged to spend, spend, spend.
But Valentine’s Day precedes consumerism, corporations, greeting cards, civilisation and even Christianity. It is an expression of what it is to be human. While every day pressures squeeze the romance out of life, Valentine’s day is an island of corny indulgence in a giant sea of cynicism.
One early attempt at valentine romance, saw me commit several days to preparation. Roses, a three course meal, as exotic as a slightly green eighteen year old could muster and on top of that a singing waiter (an extroverted mate dressed up) to serve the food.
In retrospect the menu was bizarre. Raw cauliflower and carrots with a mayonnaise and curry powder dip. For the main course a slightly watery stir fried rice dish (I didn’t have a strainer to strain the rice). This was laced with an over generous helping of chilli peppers, all teenage boys first learn to cook with chilli peppers. For dessert strawberries and bananas with a chocolate dip. Ah the deep hormonal motivations of eighteen year old boys. Everything was in place and my mate, the singing waiter completed my love trap.
Maybe the fascination and intrigues of being in love and particularly the physical side of it are not the preserve of eighteen year old boys. Valentines day has its origins in ancient Rome and it has survived centuries of religious interference and censorship to return to resemble what it originally was – a celebration of love and pairings.
The Lupercalia was a Roman festival celebrated on the 15th Day of February. In the Roman calendar February was later in the year and so the Lupercalia was a spring festival.
This festival was even old to the Romans, they were unsure of which deity it honoured. It emerged from the days when Rome was a small shepherding community on a hill called the Palantine and could have honoured Lupercus, who protected flocks against wolves, Rumina whose temple overlooked the place where the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus or Faunus the god of shepherds and agriculture.
Before the times of the great city of Rome the Lupercalia was a very joyous occasion. The foreheads of two youths were smeared with the blood of a sacrificed dog and goat. They then made their way around the perimeter of the city of Rome followed by priests lightly tapping women on the way with strips of the goats skin. This act was to protect them against infertility.
As Rome became the dominant civilisation of the era, the Lupercalia continued as an important part of the calendar. The seeds of the modern St. Valentine’s Day were sewn by Roman soldiers who took the Lupercalia customs with them to countries they conquered and occupied. One such custom was the pairing of men with women whose names they selected from a bowl. The pairing continued for the length of the festival and sometimes beyond.
As Christianity gradually advanced through Europe the church replaced pagan festivals with festivals more suited to the new faith. They kept the days of the festivals the same to ease the introduction of the new religion but they changed the name and the reason for the festival. The Lupercalia’s pairing of men and women went against the teachings of Christianity. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius ended the festival of Lupercalia and replaced it with St. Valentine’s Day. St. Valentine was declared the patron saint of lovers. The pairing of couples was replaced and people were, instead, paired with a saint. The name of a saint would be drawn from a bowl and the person who chose it would then learn about, and try to emulate that saint for the following year.
Pairing with a saint and the churches concept of St. Valentine’s Day lasted hundreds of years, but the spirit of the Lupercalia lived on in hearts, minds and spirits of the people. By the 15th Century eligible singles began pairing again. Medieval knights drew the names of their valentines from bowls and wore the names on their sleeves swearing to honour and protect them. They would sing love songs and profess their love with poetry. Eventually it became customary to write the verses down for your lover to read and by the 1600’s Valentine cards had become quite elaborate. Possibly due to the fact that most people were unable to read or write intricate handmade paper valentines became a normal mode of exchange between lovers on Valentines Day and the first of what could be recognised as a valentines card appeared.
Their popularity was sufficient that by the early 1800’s commercially produced Valentines were available. Initially they were hand painted by factory workers but by 1900 valentines were made entirely by machines using woodcuts and then eventually lithographs.
Today’s Valentine cards are frequently anonymous. They emphasise either a sense of humour, reputed to be the greatest aphrodisiac, or a sense of romance – and occasionally both. Modern valentine cards can be rude, suggestive, funny and cheeky as often as romantic. There anonimity adds to the intrigue, hopes and fantasies. Love and romance are a deep part of the human condition, despite the church’s early attempts to change its meaning the spirit of the Lupercalia lives on today. It has survived thousands of years and it is likely to be around for many more.
As for the success of my early romantic dabblings. Well the waiter was flat; the food was uncomfortable on the palette, and my date? Well, she was polite, ate as much as she could stomach and made her excuses and left, probably for home and a pint of Gaviscon.