I am sure that every-one who reads this article knows someone to whom he or she wishes to send a Valentine card. That is, someone whom he or she loves or appreciates. Nowadays, the greeting card folk have produced Valentine's Day cards for everyone: husbands, wives, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, girlfriends, boyfriends, lovers, grandparents, bosses, secretaries, and anyone else you can think of.
It's the sheer genius of American commercialism that Saint Valentine's Day has been elevated to the status of a national holiday, with bustling sales of flowers, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, jewelry, and other appropriate gifts. It even provides an opportunity for shy people to send a card to someone they would love to marry. And, of course, children like to make their own Valentine cards for grandma in the nursing home.
The Beginning of It All
But how did all of this get started, and why is February 14th the day in which we profess love for someone? As legend has it, the origin of this festival of romance goes back to a pagan fertility rite in ancient Rome celebrated since the fourth century B.C. Among their many gods, the Romans had one named Lupercus who watched over shepherds and their flocks. In his honor they held a great feast day in February of each year and called it the Lupercalia. The festival was dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who had been suckled by a she-wolf, or lupa.
It should be noted that in ancient Rome, February was the official beginning of spring and was considered a time for purification. Houses were ritually cleansed by sweeping them out. The Lupercalia began on the 15th of the month.
One of the fertility rituals involved youths of noble Roman families running through the streets with goatskin thongs made from the hide of a sacrificial goat. Young women would crowd the street in hope of a light lashing by the sacred thongs, as it was believed that it would make them better able to bear children. The goatskin thongs were known as the februa and the lashing as the februatio, both derived from the Latin word meaning to purify. The name of the month February comes from this meaning.
Also, as part of the festivities, a lottery was held in which the names of local teenage girls were placed in an urn and drawn at random by the teenage men. The girl whose name the young man drew became his companion for a year, after which many of the couples married. While this may seem like a rather amusing mating game, the elements of chance and suspense are what made it so exciting. The very novelty of getting to know someone romantically in this manner must have been the subject of much gossip and discussion among the young folk and their parents. In any case, the Lupercalia became a festival devoted to the ideas of romantic love, marriage, and family bliss.
Around 498 A.D., Pope Gelasius outlawed the Lupercalia and declared February 14th Saint Valentine's Day. The Roman "lottery" system for romantic pairing was deemed un-Christian and replaced with a lottery in which the names of saints were placed in the urn. Men and women drew names of saints whose lives they were expected to emulate. This new lottery did not last long, for the idea of emulating a saint was not very popular then or now. What replaced it has become the essence of Saint Valentine's Day.
Who was Saint Valentine and how did his name become associated with the holiday? Historical data seems to indicate that there were two priests by the name of Valentine, which makes for much confusion. But my hunch is that there was only one, and several conflicting stories gave rise to the notion that there were two Valentines.
In any case, the story is as follows. In 270 A.D. Emperor Claudius issued an edict forbidding marriage because he believed that married men made poor soldiers. They were reluctant to leave their wives and families to do battle. But Valentine, bishop of Interamna, strongly opposed the Emperor's edict and invited young couples to come to him to be married in secret. When the Emperor got wind of what the bishop was doing, he had him arrested.
This was at a time when Christians were still being martyred in Rome, and the Emperor insisted that Valentine renounce his Christian religion. But when the bishop refused, he was put in prison.
Legend tells us that while Valentine was in prison he sent letters and love notes to people in his parish. He also fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius, and that God enabled him to miraculously restore her sight. When the Emperor learned of this miracle, he ordered Valentine beheaded on February 14th. In his farewell message to Asterius, the bishop wrote in closing, "From Your Valentine."
Of course, there is no way of knowing how much of this story is true or woven out of legend. What we do know is that the pagan lottery system of mating and courtship was eventually replaced by Christian suitors sending notes to the objects of their affections.
According to the World Book Encyclopedia, the earliest records of Valentine's Day in English tell that birds chose their mates on that date. The day was probably celebrated in England as early as the 1400s. One description of Valentine's Day during the 1700s tells how groups of friends met to draw names, much as was done during the Roman Lupercalia. For several days, each man wore his Valentine's name on his sleeve. The saying "wearing his heart on his sleeve" is believed to have originated from this practice.
Today, Valentine's Day plays a light-hearted but compelling part in American romantic life. It is part of the courting process and a way of affirming one's love each year. Thus, husbands and wives are gently reminded by our commercialized culture to buy gifts for their mates as tokens of everlasting love. And despite our high rate of divorce, Valentine's Day remains an important cultural affirmation of the idea of lasting love.
- Samuel L. Blumenfeld
Samuel L. Blumenfeld (1927–2015), a former Chalcedon staffer, authored a number of books on education, including NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education, How to Tutor, Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers, and Homeschooling: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children.
He spent much of his career investigating the decline in American literacy, the reasons for the high rate of learning disabilities in American children, the reasons behind the American educational establishment’s support for sex and drug education, and the school system's refusal to use either intensive phonics in reading instruction and memorization in mathematics instruction. He lectured extensively in the U.S. and abroad and was internationally recognized as an expert in intensive, systematic phonics. His writings appeared in such diverse publications as Home School Digest, Reason, Education Digest, Boston Magazine, Vital Speeches of the Day, Practical Homeschooling, Esquire, and many others.