On the Appropriation of Holidays, or The History of Valentine’s Day

One sign of a living world is that its features have visible changes, particularly over time. Not everything stays as it began, after all.

Holidays may seem constant to us, but they do a lot of changing over time: sometimes with help, sometimes without. Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite examples.

While it has never been verified that Valentine’s Day was borrowed from the Roman fertility celebration known as Lupercalia, it’s a very common belief. It’s hardly surprising; after all, Christianity is known for its tendency to commandeer every holiday that would hold still long enough. (Ever wonder where Easter got its name?) Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things paints an image of the priests setting up the main event, the Lupercalian raffle—in which young women placed their names in a jar, and young men, upon drawing the names, would be paired up with the young woman drawn for a year—only substituting the names of saints to be venerated for potential romantic partners. (The mental image of the young men’s expressions as they realize they’ve been set up is quite priceless.) Certainly, Lupercalia was abolished by Pope Gelasius I.

It’s also not clear that the original Valentine had anything to do with love; the only certain stories are his persecution as a Christian, attempted conversion of Emperor Claudius II, healing of the blind daughter of the jailer, and execution (according to the Legenda Aurea) and his burial on the Via Flaminia. It’s assumed, at least by Wikipedia, that the associations of Valentine with romance, through the stories of his having conducted marriage ceremonies against an edict of Emperor Claudius or having fallen in love with the jailer’s daughter and left her a note signed “From your Valentine”, actually were created to fit the holiday’s romantic associations rather than the other way around.

The romantic traditions themselves are likeliest to be holdovers from Lupercalia, though they have been attributed to a poem written by Chaucer.

But whence the gift cards? While they had already existed in England (and nobody’s quite sure where they came from), the introduction to America of mass-produced paper lace valentines was the work of one Esther Howland. The chocolate came later, as did the commercialism.

Though looking at it now, with its emphasis on couples and love, would you ever have realized that Valentine’s Day had been a religious holiday?

Metamorphosing holidays can be a fun way to add additional flavor to a world. Try it sometime!

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