Be in love or hate with today, you can’t ignore the fact that love is in the air. After having spent numerous years in reclusive embarrassment about receiving a singular Valentine’s card from my mother (pause for laughs) I am finally proud to announce that I have been made to be feel incredibly special this Valentine’s Day by my amazing fiancé (you know who you are.)
However, it still plays on my mind, that Valentine’s Day is nothing more than a commercial festival with lots and lots of chocolates and teddy bears. So I decided to get to the route of the matter and ask: Where did all this romantic rubbish really come from?
Welcome to the origin story of Valentine’s Day.
Every year, the 14th February becomes infamous as a day to present cards and gifts to your one true love, be it they know of your admiration, or through secret ‘admirer’ means. (Yes this is the one day of the year you are permitted to be a stalker and it is deemed acceptable.)
However, the true roots of this fete are much darker, pre-dating Christianity and involving whipping and nudity. (Something a la Fifty Shades of Grey you could now be thinking.)
An Ancient Roman fertility festival: ‘Lupercalia’ was celebrated by the pagans through 13-15th of February. During this time, young men would strip themselves naked and use animals skin whips to spank the rumps of young women as a way of improving their fertility levels.
There are many different versions regarding where the celebration originated from.
One of the most famous legends surrounding the origins of Valentine’s Day, involves the name of the celebration itself. The tale of Claudius the Cruel: a Roman Emperor, with struggling military recruitment levels; decided he would blame love and familial relations; for his trouble and he banned all marriage and engagement in Rome.
However, Saint Valentine, a Priest in Rome at the time, managed to defy this ban (with the help of his friend Saint Marius) and performed marriages for young lovers in secret. It was plain sailing until Claudius found out and ordered Saint Valentine to be sentenced to death (being beaten to a pulp with clubs and having his head forcibly removed with an axe.) Now for the truly heart breaking part of the tragedy: whilst awaiting his death in prison, Saint Valentine fell in love with a young maiden. Rumoured to be his jailor’s daughter, she visited him repeatedly in his final stages of life, until he was finally killed on the 14th February. It was not until 496 AD, over two hundred years later, that this date was kept in memory of Saint Valentine.
So how did we make the leap between love's lost and the importance of flowers and an evening out in fine dining? Some shops have been putting out Valentine's displays as early as January to promote their products in the name of love. Commercialism is responsible for the loss of memory regarding the true origins of this special day. And now, as a society overrun with greeting cards and stuffed animals, have we lost the true sense of being whipped for fun? Along with the origins of Valentine's Day comes the stereotypical traditions.
The aphrodisiac properties of chocolate mean it has long been associated with love and is therefore given as a gift to the one you admire on this special day. Cupid and Eros are historic figures associated with love and even more 'erotic' strains of admiration. However, the original Cupid was a lot more boisterous, who shot the God Apollo just to prove a point! On another note, the idea of the red rose originated from the 18th Century when it was suggested that flowers symbolised emotions and that the red rose had connotations of love and a deep association with the heart. Thus, enterprises have jumped on the manufacturing bandwagon and rolled out romantic gifts by the billion.Yet, people still buy into their share of their belief in the sustenance of love on this singular day of the year. In fact, the saying 'wear your heart on your sleeve' originated from an old Valentine's Day tradition, stretching back to the Middle Ages. Hopeful singles would write the names of the one they admired on a piece of cloth and pin it to the sleeves of their clothing, promoting the truth of their feelings; in the hope of warranting a response. For that reason Valentine's Day has worked as a symbol of hope for courting couples and optimistic singles.
The origin of Valentine's Day is empirically Roman and rich in detail and warped practices (such as whipping young ladies and performing animal sacrifices.) But at the heart of it all is the sacrifice made by Saint Valentine himself, who only tried to be noble in the pursuit of love for young couples. What seems like a tragic Shakespearean tale actually gave way to the birth of a festival celebrating the one you love; and works as a reminder to revel in the company of your admired partner whilst you have them.