About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about Ireland’s favorite saint, good ole Patty, for a certain spring holiday.
So this year, I thought I would cover another figure full of holiday cheer(plus, living like an adult has pretty much zapped me out of ideas so: reduce, reuse, recycle): St. Valentine.
Ah yes, the man who is literally at the heart of the Hallmark movie channel’s second-favorite holiday(right behind Christmas, of course). St. Val might be capitalism’s favorite saint, as he gives millions of people excuses to buy items for their significant others(or discount candy for the lonely ones on February 15).
Everyone and their little brother hears the story of St. Valentine when they’re in elementary school. Imprisoned for his faith(which may or may not have included performing wedding ceremonies), he heals the blind daughter of his jailer to show the power of God. Though St. Valentine is martyred anyway, he leaves the girl he healed a note, signed “Your Valentine.”
Not really the romantic comedy of the year, cinematically-speaking.
So where did we get a holiday full of naked baby angels from a tale of martyrdom?
Honestly, scholars are as stumped as a Brazilian rainforest. But there are a few theories.
Similarly to St. Patrick, historians aren’t too sure about which Valentine to whom all of these stories refer. In fact, there are eleven total saints named Valentine in the Roman Catholic Church, three of whom have strong connections with the date February 14. Though the story of St. Valentine supposedly takes place in Roman, records are few and far between to support these statements.
So you can see where some of this confusion lies.
2. Even to the Feast of These
According to documented church history, the feast of St. Valentine was set in place by Pope Gelasius I around 496 AD. Concerning Valentine, he supposedly included him in a list of church martyrs “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”
Nice words, to be sure. But Gelasius may have had an ulterior motive.
You see, there was another festival in Rome that took place on February 15 named Lupercalia. For anyone who didn’t take Latin in middle school, or has no concept of J.K. Rowling’s wordplay in the Harry Potter series, “luper” connects to the word “wolf,” although even earlier sources connect the festival to the word “februa,” meaning “to purge,” from which we get(you guessed it) our word for February. So what’s up with the wolf festival?
I am SO glad you asked; this is what I live for.
Based on the Roman empire’s favorite founding fable, the festival of Lupercalia took place in the cave where Rome’s founder Romulus and his twin Remus grew up, mothered by a she-wolf all the way into adulthood. It also featured the worship of everybody’s favorite goat god, Pan, in exactly the way you’d expect.
Running through the streets naked, hitting women and children with whips as they passed.
Move over, Fifty Shades; there’s a new circus in town.
The “purpose” behind Lupercalia was not simply worship-based, either. The purging of Rome took place in the form of driving out evil spirits and restoring the health of its inhabitants. End result? Fertility. Lots and lots of babies.
Needless to say, Pope Gelasius was not a fan of such orgies. So, as the story goes, he established a church holiday, the feast of St. Valentine, to replace Lupercalia in Rome and throughout the empire.
Now, to be fair, scholars seem to have largely discredited Pope Gelasius as the founder of St. Valentine’s feast, but you’ve got to admit, there’s a lot of similarities between the Lupercalia of ancient Rome and the Valentine’s Day of the present.
But wait! There’s more!
3. Seynt Volantynys Day
The first piece of historical evidence that we have to credit for the romanticizing of Valentine’s Day comes from everyone’s favorite Middle English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer.
As Chaucer wrote in Parlement of Foules:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”
Translation for those of us who know how to use autocorrect:
“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every bird cometh there to chase his mate.”
This poem was written to commemorate the first anniversary of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. And there’s only one glaring problem with connecting it to the romance of our modern holiday.
Valentine’s Day is February 14; the anniversary in question isn’t until May 2.
Plus, birds aren’t mating in England in the middle of February; it’s hard to shake a tailfeather when it’s still snowing outside.
Turns out, there’s ANOTHER feast of St. Valentine, this time of Genoa, that generally took place on May 3.
This is one of the issues we come across when we try to dissect oral traditions; the whole truth of this holiday probably lies somewhere between the pretty stories we’re told as children and the mass confusion of scholars everywhere.
But do pretty stories even affect the spirit of the holiday? Even with a “holy” founder like St. Valentine, this upcoming holiday mirrors the Lupercalia of ancient Rome more than one of Chaucer’s feast days. Do we hold all myths as myths, or do we reject them outright, bound to celebrate as the rest of humanity does whether its origins are true or not?
Whatever, just don’t run naked through the streets this month, that’s all I ask. Not in Michigan, at least, it’s way too cold.
Happy Valentine’s Day. ❤