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The True History of Valentine’s Day

The True History of Valentine’s Day

As the fog and debt from the winter holidays clear, we can all rest easy knowing that we have time to relax before the next high-pressure holiday. Just kidding...Valentine’s Day on February 14th is only a few days away! Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and roses start to fill stores as soon as the last of the Christmas candy is cleared from the shelves. Widely recognized as the day of love and romance, Valentine's Day takes over the cold winter days and puts the pressure on relationships. But how did Valentine's Day become the day that you have to prove your love to a special someone?

Unlike other winter holidays that take center stage starting in late October, not many people understand the actual history of the holiday. You may be surprised to learn Valentine’s Day has become a very commercialized holiday filled with red roses, sweet candy and poetry, it has very dark origins dating back to Roman times. To find the answer, you need to ask how did the Roman feast get mixed up with the martyrdom of a Catholic saint and a box of chocolates?

As with so many elements of modern-day life, it all starts with the ancient Romans. Each year in mid-February, Romans would celebrate the Feast of Lupercalia, a purification festival. This event would start with an animal sacrifice at the cave of Romulus and Remus, and the very site of Rome's founding. The hides of the sacrificial animals were then cut into strips and used to whip women as a way to increase fertility in the coming year.

But the story of modern-day Valentine’s Day is not as simple as a sanitized version of a pagan festival. You also have to consider that the Emperor Claudius II sentenced a man named Valentine to death in the 3rd-century A.D. According to Catholic theologians, Valentine was executed on February 14th because he refused to renounce Christ and performed a miracle of healing before he was beheaded. After his martyrdom, the church canonized Valentine and observed his feast day in mid-February, which also happens to be the Feast of Lupercalia.

For many hundreds of years, these two observations were held alongside one another until the 5th century A.D. At this point, Christianity was becoming more widespread and Pope Gelasius I combined the two celebrations to tame its pagan rituals. By combining the feasts, Pope Gelasius I tamed the more outlandish rites of Lupercalia and mingled it with Christian religious observation.

The mixed observation stayed this way for many more centuries until the dawn of the Middle Ages and the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare. These two writers are given credit for bringing romance and courtship and creating the day of love that we now know. So whether you are planning a night of passion with your lover or celebrating your singlehood this Valentine’s Day, just be glad you get to celebrate with chocolate and champagne instead of animal sacrifice.

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