As February 14 approaches, shops are filled with heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, lovey-dovey greeting cards, and bunches of red and pink flowers, reminding us that it is time once again to find the perfect expression of love for that special someone, be it friend, relative, sweetheart, or adored goldfish. You may set out with loving intentions, or you may find yourself asking, “Why do we have this ridiculous holiday, anyway?” Believe it or not, our ancestors were probably wondering the same thing. There are several historical sources linked with Valentine’s Day, dating as far back as ancient times.
The ancient Romans celebrated a religious festival called Lupercalia in mid-February. During the festivities, young men holding whips made of goat hide raced naked around a hill. Women who wanted children stood near the runners’ path to be whipped, because they believed the blows would make them more likely to become pregnant. After the Romans conquered Britain, the British borrowed many Roman festivals. Many writers link Lupercalia with Valentine’s Day because of its date and the connection between love and making babies.
Some experts see the history of the modern holiday in the stories of either of two martyrs of the early Christian church called Valentine. According to one story, the Roman Emperor Claudius II in the A.D. 200’s forbade young men to marry because single men made better soldiers. A priest named Valentine disobeyed the emperor and married young couples secretly.
Another story tells of an early Christian who befriended many children. After the Romans imprisoned him for his faith, children tossed loving notes through his cell window. A Roman history of martyrs lists two Valentines beheaded on February 14, in Rome and Interamna (now Terni, Italy). It is possible there was only one Valentine, remembered as two different people. In 496, Pope Gelasius I made February 14 St. Valentine’s Day.
On a lighter note, an old English belief held that birds choose their mates on February 14. Works by the English poets William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer mention this supposed avian tradition.
Valentine’s Day as we know it probably developed from a combination of these sources, plus the idea that spring is a time for lovers. The day has led over the years to a variety of traditions that honor, have fun with, or mourn a lack of, love. South Koreans, for example, celebrate Valentine’s Day (February 14), when women give men gifts; White Day (March 14), when men return the favor; and finally, if they didn’t receive any gifts, Black Day (April 14). The last is a day to mourn being single, observed by wearing black and eating noodles with black bean paste.
If you are still at a loss for that perfect gift, this Valentine’s Day might be a good time to educate your loved ones about the holiday’s evolution by presenting them with, say, a goat hide, some bird seed, or a comforting bowl of noodles. All in a loving spirit, of course.
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