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Mon, May

Valentine’s Day traditions reach back in history

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Come Valentine’s Day, couples will spend romantic nights at home or fun time out on the town. The other half, by circumstance or choice, will observe Singles Awareness Day, a tongue-in-cheek protest holiday and head out on the town perhaps to find that special someone.

For me, Valentine’s Day was a chance for a sixth-grade boy to finally tell a certain six-grade girl that he didn’t just “like” her but “like-liked” her in a valentine. Of course, she’d overlooked the brilliant sixth-grade subtlety in how he underlined the pre-printed “I love you” in marker, and went on to break his heart by moving away at the end of junior high.


Some holidays, such as Christmas or Easter, elicit strife between those who want to honor the religious heritage of the holiday and those who celebrate the modern incarnation, pitting Nativity attendees and the crucified Jesus on one side, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny on the other.

St. Valentine’s Day, however, stands apart as a secular festival dedicated to the celebration of love — a 2,700-year-old February tradition. It has roots in religious fertility rites, but the spiritual connection has long since given way to nonreligious romantic activities.

At the Roman festival of Juno Februata on Feb. 14, boys would draw the names of girls from a jar, with whom they would be partnered during the Lupercalia festival the next day on the ides of February.

Since the early Roman Republic in 753 B.C., Lupercalia was a dual celebration of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled Rome’s semi-mythical shepherd founders Romulus and Remus, as well as a licentious fertility festival dedicated to the pastoral god Faunus.

Early Roman Christians changed the practice, substituting the girls’ names with those of martyred saints.

Historically, St. Valentine is a fuzzy figure. He was either a third-century priest in Rome, a bishop of Interamna in Italy’s Umbria province or an early Christian martyr in Roman-ruled North Africa. The figure may been created to fill a theological vacuum created by the supplantation of Roman mythology by Christianity toward the end of the Roman Empire.

Pope Gelasius I finally banned Lupercalia and by extension Juno Februata in A.D. 494. Lupercalia had turned into a feast day for the saint.

In his papal canon, Gelasius listed St. Valentine among other semi-mythical, semi-historical figures such as St. George and St. Christopher, “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God,” the theological equivalent of “We don’t know who these people were, either.”

Passing notes to lovers, however, remains.

Whether partnered or single this Valentine’s Day, celebrate love somehow. The celebration of love connects us to each other as much as it did our ancestors around the globe.

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