The Dark Origins Of Valentine's Day

Valentines Day is an odd holiday, the feast day of a saint and a celebration of romance at the same time. It’s been evolving for a long time. While the operant word for the modern celebration is “love,” the holiday has its roots firmly in “sex.”

From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The Roman romantics "were drunk. They were naked," says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

The saint known as Valentine came later, and like Christmas and other holidays, the church used the feast day to supplant the earlier pagan celebration. Read how that happened, and more of the history of Valentines Day, at NPR.

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As an actual historian, I'd like to point out that this is blatantly false. There have been some authors who love the February coincidence and have made this argument, but they're generally regarded on the same level as Mr. Ruskamp and his China discovered America theory.

Lupercalia seems like a seriously weird thing to moderns what with the hottest young men running around the city and women trying to get hit by the strips of hide they carried in order to up their fertility. As interesting as it is, it has nothing to do with Valentine's Day. (Also I'd love to know what ancient source this writer got the idea of a "matchmaking lottery" from.)

Lupercalia, in a form much different from the original festival, was officially abolished in the 5th century and replaced with the feast of the purification of Mary. We don't have any evidence of Valentine's Day existing before it shows up in Chaucer and a number of other fourteenth century English and French poets (where, I'd like to add, we don't have any evidence that the Lupercalia festival was ever celebrated in the first place). And yes, supposedly the saint was an early Christian martyr, but the hagiography of Valentine (like Saints Lucy and Agatha) was a much later construction. That's a huge geographic and temporal gap to claim a connection.
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