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 History/Culture: The History of Valentine’s Day/Feast of Lupercalia

Holidaysby Sherlyn Meinz [a.k.a. Blue1moon]

How do you say “I Love You?” There are so many ways: Ti amo (Italy); Kanbhik (Mohawk); Jeg Elsker Deg (Norway); Ya tebya liubliu (Russia); Ich liebe dich (Germany); Aishiteru (Japan); Doo-set daaram (Persia); Iay ovlay ouyay (Pig Latin) to name just a few!

Happy Valentine’s Day! The history of this day, like most of our beloved holidays, goes back to ancient times. It’s meanings, celebrations, and rituals have changed over time, but for the most part, it has its roots in love, sex, romance, and choosing a mate. For a brief period, a Saint was chosen on this day to emulate during the coming year.

There are several ancient gods and goddesses associated with what we now call "Valentine's Day", originally two holidays, celebrated on February 14th and 15th. Some of these traditions are thought to date to around 400 BC, in Rome. ...

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On February 14th, an erotic fertility celebration, honoring Juno, the goddess of women and marriage was held. Juno was the ‘Queen’ of Roman goddesses, and was also called Juno Februata, meaning “feverish” (febris) love. On February 15th , the ‘ides of February’, the the Feast of Lupercalia was held, dedicated to Lupercus, the god of Wolves. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were said to be descendents of the mortal son of Venus, the Goddess of Love.

The holiday celebration of the Feast of Lupercalia began as the members of a Roman order of priests, the Luperci, gathered at the scared cave where the infants, Romulus and Remus, were supposedly raised by a she-wolf (lupa). A goat was then sacrificed for fertility and a dog for purification. Boys sliced the goat’s hide into strips and dipped them in the sacrificial blood. They ran through the streets gently slapping women and crop fields with the strips, bringing them fertility. The women would write ‘billets’ (love letters) and leave them in a special urn. Men would then draw one of the messages and actively pursue the woman whose note they had received. The chosen partners enjoyed the holiday with feasting and sexual game playing. Other traditions hold that the Feast of Lupercalia was considered a young man’s passage rite. Young women placed their names in an urn, and adolescent men then randomly drew a name. The two were then considered companions for the year. Sometimes they would marry after this period, or they could choose another partner at the next festival. Lupercalia was considered the official beginning of Spring, and a time for purification. Our current traditions of “Spring Cleaning” date back to this time, when houses were ritually cleansed, and salt was sprinkled. Salt is considered a purifying and grounding (“down to earth”) substance, it is also thought to have protective properties.

Cupid ( Eros) is a winged and mischievous, child-like deity, whose mother, Venus ( Aphrodite,) is the goddess of Love and Beauty. Cupid used his arrows to pierce the hearts of his victims, causing them to fall deeply in love. One of the legends regarding Cupid was his love for Psyche. Venus was jealous of Psyche’s beauty and sent her son, Cupid, to punish the human. Instead, Cupid ended up falling in love with her and took her as his wife. However, as a mortal woman, she was forbidden to look upon him. Psyche was happy with her marriage until her sisters finally convinced her that she should look upon her husband. Cupid was angry and punished her by leaving; their castle and beautiful gardens disappeared with him. Psyche began wandering, trying to find her love, and came upon a temple of Venus. Hoping to destroy the impudent mortal, Venus set tasks for Psyche to complete, each one more difficult and dangerous than the last. For her final task, Psyche was told to take a small box to the underworld and put some of the beauty of Pluto’s wife, Proserpine, into it. She was given help in avoiding the dangers of the underworld ‘Realm of the Dead’, and warned not to open the box. Temptation overcame Psyche, and upon opening the box, she found deadly slumber. Cupid forgave her, but when he found her, Psyche was laying lifeless on the ground. He was able to take the sleep from her body and return it to the box. The Gods were so moved by her love for Cupid, that they made Psyche a goddess, and even Venus forgave her.

In more recent times, February 14th, has been celebrated as St. Valentine’s day. There is much controversy about St. Valentine himself, causing the Catholic Church to drop this day from the official Calendar of Worldwide Catholic Feasts in 1969, though some parishes continue to observe it. During the third century (AD), Emperor Claudius II of Rome outlawed marriage, having decided that single men made better soldiers than those encumbered with wives and children. Valentine, who may have been a Catholic bishop, defied Claudius’ decree and continued to perform marriages in secret. Claudius eventually discovered Valentine’s defiance and ordered him put to death. Other stories indicate that Valentine helped Christians escape cruel Roman prisons and was put to death for this. In yet another legend of Valentine, he was imprisoned before being put to death, and cured a young woman of blindness. She is thought to have been the jailer’s daughter. They fell in love, but she was unable to save him. It is said that he wrote her a letter before he was beheaded on February 14th, and signed it “From your Valentine.”

The Catholic Church was not approving of the Feast of Lupercalia, and the ‘urn method’ of choosing romantic partners. In 498 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day, and outlawed the “un-Christian” practice. Instead, clergy encouraged people to place the names of saints in the urns, and choose one to emulate for the next twelve months. This practice proved unpopular and did not last long, and so to modulate the erotic and sexual nature of the holiday, the “feast of flesh” was transformed into a “ritual for romance.”

Medieval Europeans believed that the birds chose their partners and began mating on February 14th. The day was observed by writing and sending love letters and gifts to their beloved. Valentine is said to have been one of the most popular of saints in France and England, during the Middle Ages. The custom of a lottery to select ‘a valentine’ continued right into the eighteenth century. Both married and singles participated, and gifts and love tokens were exchanged. Later it became the sole responsibility of the man to give a gift. This tradition faded out, since many men were not happy about giving gifts to women not of their choosing. After this time, the celebration became more of a romantic celebration for couples, and a way to express feelings to someone who may or may not know you are interested. In England, children dressed as adults and sang holiday verses, going from door to door. Wooden love spoons, carved with key and keyhole designs were popular gifts in Wales.

Lovers frequently sang their valentine verses, later paper valentine cards began being exchanged in place of gifts, and were especially popular in England by the 16th century. However, because of the expense of postage, most valentines were hand-delivered until the mid-1800’s. The first written ‘valentine’ is said to have come from Charles, the Duke of Orleans, in 1415. He was imprisoned and wrote romantic verses for his wife. These verses are part of a collection of the British Library in London. Several years later, it is thought that King HenryV hired John Lydgate to compose a valentine note for him for Catherine of Valois.

Early ‘valentines’ were hand-made, using colored paper, ribbon, colored inks, watercolors, lace, silk, flowers, feathers, etc. They were often miniature works of art. Lonely sailors were said to have made exquisite valentines using seashells to create hearts and flowers and to cover heart-shaped boxes.

Giving flowers as Valentine’s gifts is thought to date back to the early 1700’s. Charles II of Sweden brought to Europe the Persian poetical art called “the language of flowers.” Entire secret conversations could take place in the selection of the flowers that made up a bouquet. The rose, as a representation of love, is almost universally understood.

Esther Howland produced the first commercial American valentines in the 1840’s, and was able to sell a stunning $5,000 worth of cards in her first year of business. The first manufactured valentines were printed in black and white, then factory workers painted them by hand! Today, over a billion Valentine cards are sent each year in the US. Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Australia and France are among other countries who celebrate Valentine’s day.

Early hand-made valentine’s cards were made in a number of ways:

Acrostic used verses in which the first lines spelled out the recipient’s name.
Cutouts were made by folding the paper, and using small, sharp scissors to cut out lacey designs.
Pinprick were made by using a pin or needle to make tiny holes in paper to create lacy-looking designs.
Theorem or Poonah these had designs that were painted on paper using a stencil cut from oil paper, this style originated in the Orient.
Rebus in these valentine verses, pictures took the place of some words, (i.e., a picture of an eye in place of the word “I”)
Puzzle Purse these folded puzzles, had to be opened, refolded and reopened, so that the verses could be read in the right order.
Fraktur had lettering that was ornamental in the style of Middle Age illuminated manuscripts.

Symbols of Love and Valentine’s Day:

Heart - In ancient times the heart was thought to be the source of all emotions.

Lace - Used to make lady’s handkerchiefs, lace became associated with love because of the tradition of men picking up a dropped handkerchief for a lady. Women might purposely drop a handkerchief in the hopes of attracting the attention of a man she was interested in. Lace was used to decorate hand-made valentine cards.

Love Knot - a symbol of everlasting love, they were drawn on paper or made from ribbon. They are made using interlacing loops, having no beginning or end.

Lovebirds - The colorful birds of Africa were named because they sit in pairs, like sweethearts. Doves, who mate for life and share the care for their young, are symbols of loyalty, love and purity.

Red Roses - The color red is associated with strong feelings. The rose was supposed to be one of Venus, Goddess of Love’s favorite flowers.

“X” – a symbol for a kiss. In medieval times, many could not write or sign their names. They were allowed to sign documents, before witnesses, with an “X”. The signer would kiss the “X” to show his or her sincerity. Eventually it came represent a kiss, and is often used at the end of correspondence as a symbol of love.

For “I love you in more languages,” visit:

Famous love poems:


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