Like many people, I find the American version of Valentine’s Day and the saccharine and monochromatic view of love it promotes to be repulsive. In my younger days I assumed the whole farce was invented by the greeting card and gifting industry, along with the rise of all manner of fake holidays intended to get us to buy stuff to assuage our guilt at not putting too much real effort into the relationships the cards are dubiously honoring. Yes, there is the Saint Valentine story, but Valentine was an old priest, the one category of males that are not notably interested in pursuing women. And the cards are all about pursuit.
In truth, the original St Valentine narrative had nothing to do with lovers. Up until the mid-14th century, Valentine was petitioned for aid in times of hunger and drought. In iconography he is portrayed with a sword or shepherd’s crook, sometimes a palm branch, almost always a book. He is sometimes wearing a bishop’s miter though he is almost universally called a priest. And he is normally depicted as an old man with a white beard and wrinkles. He is patron saint of lovers, marriage and couples, but his other older domains — beekeeping, plague, fainting, epilepsy and traveling — are distinctly unromantic. Moreover, we know very little about this saint’s life except that there are many men named Valentine that could have become the saint. What we do know spoils much of what we’d like to think we know.
Consistency and historical accuracy are not normally problematic in hagiography, where even physics and biology take a back seat to a compelling tale. So let’s look at the story of St Valentine.
Third century Rome was ruled by Claudius II, the Cruel, who got his sobriquet from his many bloody military ventures. He required vast armies of soldiers to fight and die for the Roman Empire — and his own glory, of course. Only unmarried young men were drafted to serve. Understandably many balked, and their preferred form of draft dodging was marriage. Claudius was so angered by this that he temporarily outlawed marriage. (Because that makes total sense when trying to replenish the soldierly ranks…)
Valentine was a Roman Christian priest who quietly and secretly married people by candlelight and went about his business in a gentle and virtuous manner. These marriages may have been more for convenience than love, to avoid conscription, but nevertheless Valentine became known for showing kindness in uniting sweethearts — going so far as to risk punishment by contravening the rule of Claudius.
Eventually, Claudius discovered Valentine’s matrimonial undertakings and became enraged with Valentine for marrying off his army prospects. In some versions of the tale, Claudius delivered a warning to Valentine which Valentine ignored. In all the tales, Claudius issued a decree to capture the priest, who was duly detained and subsequently imprisoned.
While awaiting execution, the tale goes, Valentine befriended his jail keeper. Valentine learned that the man was sad because he had a young daughter who was blind. On hearing this, Valentine, ever helpful, asked to meet the young girl. The jailer brought his daughter to Valentine, and the holy man placed his hands upon the girl’s eyes and healed her. With this gift of sight, the girl’s heart turned to Valentine. The story goes that while they couldn’t meet again, they wrote to each other through the girl’s father, the jail keeper. It is believed that the last letter Valentine sent to her was signed ‘Your Valentine’. St Valentine was executed by stoning and decapitation on the 14th of February.
Coincidentally, 14 February was the date of the old Roman love lotteries wherein young men would draw the names of willing young girls out of a jar to discover their partners for the Lupercalia festival. This custom of selecting sweethearts by drawing names was still popular in England and Scotland hundreds of years later. Pope Gelasius I (492-6CE) banned this practice, but he met with such an outcry that he was forced to apologize. Then in 496, the names of girls in the lottery became the names of saints. Prayers were offered to the saint you drew. Predictably, this alteration was not met with enthusiasm.
Now… the message I derive from this story is not as much a story of doomed love nor even of a priest finding a way to unite desperate lovers as it is a story about insubordination. The young people may have been in love — because young people are — but the inducement to rush into matrimony was a very reasonable wish to avoid being a sacrifice to Claudius’ bloody ambition.
Romans had very different views of love and marriage. They rarely married for love and apparently loved rarely within marriage. In truth, for most peoples marriage has been and still is a civil contract, not a romantic pairing. It is largely the tool society developed to own the reproductive capacity and care work of women. While the matches Valentine made were perhaps as good as any for both bride and groom, romance was a highly unlikely motivation. One does wonder, as ever, how many of the brides were even willing. So Valentine’s efforts were perhaps more protest against militarism than defense of marriage.
Yet over time, Valentine’s Day became firmly associated with fertility. Or perhaps it is more precise to say that the middle of February became re-associated with fertility.
There is a long tradition that this is the time of year when birds choose their mates. As far back as Aristophanes (446-386BCE) and in cultures all around the globe, there is a strong connection between birds and good fortune, fertility and love. Swallows, in particular, are symbols of love — and in mid-February they are migrating to northern mating grounds.
Many of the myths connecting birds and love originated in the Mediterranean south where it was warm by the middle of February. But even up north it is not unlikely that the tradition had roots in local experience.
By the middle of February, mating flights of blackbirds, rooks and ravens are raucously obvious; and in warmer years thrushes, finches and sparrows sing their mating songs. However, in Chaucer’s day, swallows and other flashy migratory birds might have actually been dancing their romance across the skies — and this would have been true for hundreds of years prior to Chaucer’s time. Chaucer lived at the end of the Medieval Warm Period which began in the 10th century and created mild winters as far north as Scotland. The climate of England in this period was nearly like that of the Southeastern US, warm and humid. February 14th in Chaucer’s day would have been more vernal than wintry, with birds singing their lusty songs from the treetops.
Still, Chaucer makes no mention of human romance. That came later. And when it appeared it had little to do with marriage.
Like the lottery sweethearts in Roman times, 14 February evolved into a day of ephemeral and inconsequential pairings. Indeed, the tradition of drawing names persisted right through to modern times. But there were other methods of arranging affairs of chance. In 16th century England, it became tradition that the first person one saw when leaving the house on Valentine’s Day would be your sweetheart for the day. First meetings like this became carefully orchestrated, though initially the objective of these machinations was to chance upon a desired partner. Some of these pairings, in fact, became long term. If the affair lasted until Easter, gifts were exchanged and things took a serious turn. But over time, the first meeting encounters took on a political bent, with pairing — and, more importantly, visible and sometimes ostentatious gifting — arranged to reinforce status and patronage. By the late 17th century, married couples did not even give favors to each other. Instead, each had another Valentine arranged for the day.
Once again, marriage does not seem to be the focus. Indeed, by Victorian times — when it became customary to send flowers, sweets and cards anonymously to your Valentine — even love seems to be missing. Romance maybe, though of a decidedly unrequited variety (because everything was in the repressed 19th century). But these are not relationships of long-term commitment and caring. They’re not even relationships of brief but passionate lust. Anonymous card-giving and politically motivated gifting hardly qualify as human relationships at all.
So whence love at the ides of February?
It begins with Rome and with the New Year. For the Romans, February was the time of cleansing, chasing away the old year in preparation for the new. Though January 1st was designated the year’s beginning, the older custom of initiating the year in March (either on the 1st or on the equinox) stubbornly persisted. The name “February” is derived from februa, to purify. The custom of lighting candles in February, and hence Candlemas, originated in Rome, probably to allow for the feverish activity of cleaning to continue into the dark winter evenings.
As with most liminal times, the Roman transition from old year to new incorporated many elements of licentiousness and disorder. The most notorious of these is Lupercalia, a strange and possibly pre-Roman festival given over to sheer lust.
The name “Lupercalia” is derived from the legend of Rome’s founding. The orphaned royal twins, Romulus and Remus, stumbled out of the Tiber River and were taken in by a she-wolf. She nursed them in a grotto on the Palatine hill. This cave is called the Lupercal, which probably derives from lupus, wolf, though there is no agreement on the etymology.
It is difficult to derive the ritual traditions of Lupercalia from this story. The one commonality is that the central rite took place at the Palatine hill where Mother Wolf raised the foundling founder of Rome. But the rites were clearly celebrating something else entirely.
The ritual of Lupercalia began with the sacrifice of goats — and, oddly, a dog — as well as cakes made by the Vestal Virgins. The oldest version of the rite required that two young men of high rank smear the sacrificial blood on their foreheads. The blood was then washed away with wool dipped in milk. The young men were required to laugh loudly — loud was crucial — strip naked, and partake of the sacrificial feast. Then, attired only in strips of goatskin, they ran around the base of the Palatine hill, using more goatskin thongs — called februa, purifiers — to strike those women who, desiring to become pregnant, stepped into their path.
In time, the number of ritual participants increased and the ritual acts became limited to the strangest elements. Barely clad young men would flock to the base of the Palatine hill, laughing loudly and carrying goatskin thongs. They used these to ritually lash women who wanted to conceive. The blow was normally a gentle brush to the palm, but some zealous women would bare their skin for a proper lashing. It was thought that taking the pain in this manner would not only aid conception by purging the body of impurity but would also lessen the pain of childbirth. (I do question this, given that these were intelligent women facing a complete lack of circumstantial evidence — childbirth continued to be excruciating, goatskin lashings notwithstanding — but that is the story.)
It is believed that the celebration of Lupercalia honored, not the she-wolf without a name, but the god Faunus and the goddess Juno. Both are pre-Roman deities. Faunus is a wild horned spirit who embodies sexual drive. He is a shadowy figure sometimes inappropriately equated with Pan because they’re both goat gods. Also like Pan, the lore of Faunus is generally uncomfortable. Juno is an ancient goddess of time. She is the protector of women, particularly married women. She is a healer and goddess of fertility and birth. Thus Lupercalia is a human fertility festival of the most essential variety. It celebrates and stimulates lust and human procreation.
But once again the myths fall fairly short of romantic love and committed relationships.
After consideration, I think that it’s possible that Valentine’s Day as we know it was in fact manufactured by the greeting card industry. The Romans were celebrating fecundity and the sexual urge — and it should be noted that only single young men were representing the latter and only married women represented the former. Medieval Europeans associated mid-February with the new life of springtime, most commonly symbolized by the mating rituals of birds. In the 16th century there do seem to have been some human partnerships formed through the celebration of Valentine’s Day, but this didn’t last for long and was never the primary focus. By the 17th century the customs were almost mercenary (as much was in Reformation England).
The intense commercialism of love began in the 19th century. In the Victorian craze for frippery and sentimental home life (which had nothing to do with actual home life), the Valentine card was born — though it was always mailed anonymously, led to few romantic encounters, and died out within the century, overwhelmed by anti-affection cards (because snark will happen if there are no consequences). Card-giving was not reborn until the mid-20th century, and even now in England it persists as anonymous message, naming neither the giver nor the recipient. They are all “to my Valentine”. The custom of giving Valentine gifts never did die out though, and so grotesque had it become by 1858 that Ralph Waldo Emerson called the gifts exchanged a “cold and lifeless substitute” for an offering from the heart.
And if he thought the mid-19th century version of Valentine’s Day was disgustingly commercial, he would likely lose faith in humanity altogether at the way we celebrate it now. There is nothing from the heart in our version of this ancient fertility rite. There is nothing of fertility either. Producing offspring is generally unwanted. There is sex and pointless romancing for pretty young adults. There are shallow but obligatory gifts and expensive aphrodisiac and alcoholic meals for partners. There is little mention of commitment, care, or, in fact, real adult love — as opposed to infatuation or merely attraction.
Like many modern consumer rites, Valentine’s Day is a pose, an image. It is not real. It is not meant for anyone who does not fit the image. In fact, this holiday and all its attendant marketing are weaponized against anyone who doesn’t fit the image. We are relentlessly told that we are not good enough when we fail to measure up to this false effigy. And since it is all fakery, none of us ever do fit. We have created a pretense of a festival that intentionally breeds misery so that we’ll spend money to ameliorate the pain that the festival we created causes. Work that circular nightmare out!
This travesty is the love-child of the boomer obsession with youthful self image and the monetizing of all the insecurity that comes with such an unattainable goal. The undo focus on sex, the sappy falling-in-love narratives, the emphasis on appearance as the measure of one’s worthiness to be loved — even the idea that love is earned and not freely given — these are all new to the world. Our ancestors would be baffled by our ways of relating to each other. Love has never been so narrowly defined and so limited. We have so little of it in the world, we’ve taken to using the word to describe our emotions about things. I love toast. This is a perversion.
Love is not what you feel, it is what you do. Moreover, it is what you do for others. Sex is not making love, it is breeding humans. Falling in love is not loving, it is being attracted to someone. Image has nothing to do with love. Love is blind. Remember that phrase? It’s been around for a long time. One might expect that it speaks to some small stone of truth. Love is not gifting, it is giving yourself freely and without any expectations. Love is the work you do for others. Love is the labor of a lifetime. And these are love’s cardinal failings in the modern world. We want neither long-term responsibility nor any effort that is not self-directed — and preferably little of that as well. Love is not lazy, and we can’t tolerate that.
Love is not sex; it is not body-dependent at all. Yet that is all we see in Valentine’s Day marketing. Bodies. Bodies of young people. Pictures of young bodies that are often altered to appear inhumanly smooth and slim. And we only see these bodies. We don’t experience this marketing campaign through any other sense — largely because it is very difficult to dupe our other senses. We don’t even have words for that; our language for fakery is all visual. Furthermore, we see these bodies through media. We do not experience this marketing campaign directly. Valentine’s Day is mediated imagery.
And that is all it is.
But love as sex? If boomer males had intentionally set out to exploit feminism’s pursuit of independence, they could hardly have come up with a more destructive weapon than “free love”. Sit with that phrase. What does it mean to you? What does it mean in our mediated society? What does it mean in itself? Love is not free. It is not created without responsibility or attachment or the work of care. Love does not cost money, but it costs labor and time.
Further, if love equals sex, then free love is a meaningless phrase. Sex is not free at all. Sex is how we reproduce ourselves. That is what it does. The side effects are wonderful, but the main effect — the thing that will happen if heterosexuals are engaged in this act frequently — is that a woman will become pregnant. (Which is not part of any romance story… for good reasons…) Now consider that the Valentine’s Day imagery is almost all about women of child-bearing age having sex with men. Furthermore, to do sex well takes practice with one partner. Pleasure must be learned together. Great casual sex might be possible for a man; I don’t know. Sex in a woman’s body is not enjoyable with a partner who does not know that body intimately.
And in all this, the greater meaning of love is completely lost. Who do you love? I’d bet that your romantic partner is one of many people. It is likely that your romantic partner is not even the first person who comes to mind. Your mother, your sister, your son, your mentor? Love is not sexual. It is care. It is family. It is life.
Lupercalia is a festival of sex, yes. The young men were running around naked, smacking people with goatskins presumably to get what young men want. But what were the women lining up for? Children.
More to the point though, Lupercalia is named for a home and a mother. It is named for a wolf who took human children into her home, who cared for them, who raised them, who gave of herself freely and attentively when humanity turned its collective back on these helpless infants. Wolves are loving; their entire society is based on caring for each other. They mate for life. They remain in family groups to care for elders and infants alike. They feed and nurture each other. A festival of love could not have a better emblem than Mother Wolf. But that festival has nothing to do with romance. Or sex. Or marketing.
So… what do we do with Valentine’s Day? I say ditch it.
If you want to celebrate passionate sex and procreation, follow the goat god into the woods with whomever you please (not with whomever pleases you).
If you want to celebrate true love, look to the wolves who mate for life and put family before all.
If you want to celebrate spring, then clean your house and watch for the daffodils and swallows.
But then again, if you just want chocolate… there is an abundance of it in February. Don’t let the lack of a gift-giving partner stop you. Buy a whole box for yourself and devour every last luscious mouthful.
On the other hand, there is room for a celebration of being in love with the world. Love through the eyes and hearts of a child. And that is, indeed, a part of modern Valentine’s Day. Our littlest children give paper cards and candies to each other in school. Our teens have dances and write bad poetry. Everyone pays more attention to that pull of the heart toward others. For the youngest and for many of us elders, that pull is not even necessarily toward humans. My sons always insisted on giving the dogs special treats for Valentine’s Day (a good way to teach them what a canid can’t eat…). My own heart is soaring with the birds and the clouds and the stars which feel like they are drawing right down to embrace the Earth in the early spring skies.
There are stories that center love for all things. Some novels, more mid-grade fiction, but there are quite a lot of picture books. Of course. The Day It Rained Hearts by Felicia Bond (1983, HarperCollins Children’s Books) is still one of the best. This is a simple story of the craft-work a young girl puts into the messages of care she sends to her dearest friends. Sweet without being saccharine. It’s adorable.
Lorna Balian created a just-so story for Valentine’s Day that makes as much sense as any other, more sense than the tale of the executed priest. A Sweetheart for Valentine (1979, Star Bright Books) gives us a whole village and the love they showered on a foundling baby of unusual character. They named the babe, Valentine, and the day she married became Valentine’s Day.
Robert Sabuda, however, has created a new version of the original myth of the old priest in beautiful mosaics and elegant prose. His Saint Valentine (1992, Atheneum Books for Young Readers) does a fair job of showing the love that encompasses all things and binds us all together. Here we see Valentine in his first trade, that of physician and pharmacist, a gentle man who cared for all who came to his door no matter who they were, when they arrived, nor if they could pay the fees. In this story, the jailer brings his blind daughter to Valentine as a patient and slowly Valentine works to give her eyes sight. No magic; just simple medicine. Valentine is not thrown in jail for his own actions, but merely as part of the general cruelty the Roman Empire showed toward Christians. And his execution is not part of Sabuda’s story. This is the story I read to my sons when they were small. This is what I would like to believe is true…
©Elizabeth Anker 2023
Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. 2003. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. 1999. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun.1996. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
K, Amber, and Azrael Arynn K. Candlemas: Feast of Flames. 2001. Llewellyn Publications: Woodbury, Minnesota.
McKechnie, Sam and Alexandrine Portelli. The Magpie and the Wardrobe: A Curiosity of Folklore, Magic and Spells. 2016. Pavilion Books: London.