If there’s one thing you learn when you study people and history, it’s that nothing is really new. As everyone from boudoir photographers to lingerie companies gear up for their Valentine’s Day marketing campaigns, I thought it would be fun to talk about where Valentine’s Day comes from.
If we learn about the history behind Valentine’s Day at all in school, it’s about Saint Valentine who secretly married priests when the law forbid it. It turns out, that’s almost certainly made up by Chaucer (and promoted by greeting card companies). In the legend, the first Valentine was sent by Saint Valentine himself to the jailer’s daughter. He signed it “From Your Valentine”. With that one line, an entire marketing industry was born.
Modern scholarship believes that absolutely none of that is true. In fact, poor Saint Valentine’s holiday was removed from the official Catholic calendar because there isn’t any information about him. The historical record mentions not one but three Saint Valentines, all of whom were martyred because of their beliefs. Apparently too many saints with the same name is as bad as no saints at all, so his holiday was taken off the schedule. The only thing people seem to agree on is that at least one Saint Valentine was killed on February 14th.
When you look further, the origins of what we know as Valentine’s Day probably goes back to a Roman festival called Lupercalia. It was held on our February 13 through 15, and celebrated fertility (and quite frankly) nakedness. The Romans were generally a big fan of being naked whenever possible, so this holiday isn’t quite as unique as it sounds.
During Lupercalia men would dress up as some kind of satyr/goatherder combination and roam the streets in nothing but thongs. These men were a reference to Lupa, the she-wolf who miraculously raised Romulus and Remus who then went on to found Rome. Women who wanted to increase their fertility in the coming year would stand around as the men ran by and hold out their hands to have them slapped gently by a light whip. This conferred a blessing, either for fertility or ease in childbirth.
It seems fitting that these two old traditions make up the themes of our modern Valentine’s Day: romantic love and sex. We can thank Chaucer for the candy, flowers, and jewelry, and it’s very easy to imagine the Romans approving of many of our lingerie choices. Either way, we’re just acting out a very old set of traditions.