Wednesday, Feb. 14, is St. Valentine’s Day, which is either a quasi-religious secular holiday dedicated to expression of love or a nefarious commercial fabrication created by chocolate companies to sell heart-shaped boxes of confectioneries.
Whatever the name, the event is a 2,700-year-old February tradition. Since the early foundation of the 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 after the late Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, substituting the girls’ names with those of martyred saints.
Pope Gelasius I finally banned Lupercalia and by extension Juno Februata in A.D. 494. By then, Lupercalia had become a feast day for the saint.
Historically, St. Valentine 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. 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 specific connection to the date likely had little to do with the saint, but like most conversions of pagan rituals into Christian tradition, was made to supplant the old religion with the new.
While there is no direct connection between ancient Lupercalia and modern Valentine’s Day, remnants of the old Roman holiday persisted as folk traditions in Italy and other parts of the former empire for centuries afterward. Some of these traditions were noted by writers in the Renaissance, connecting declarations and acts of love with the specific date on the calendar.
The first direct reference to romantic love and the day was actually made by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in his 14th century poem “Parlement of Foules,” a humorous satire of courtly love written between 1381 and 1382 to honor the impending marriage between Chaucer’s patron, the 15-year-old King Richard II and his future wife, 16-year-old Anne of Bohemia.
In the Middle English poem, set on Feb. 14, Chaucer dreams of three high-ranking eagles vying for a female bird’s affections. Birds of various species, representing various aspects of English social classes, offer their opinions. In the third-tolast stanza, Chaucer specifically references “Saynt Valentyn,” connecting the date and the saint.
Although Anne and Richard suffered tragic ends — Anne died childless at 28 and Richard was deposed, setting the stage for the War of the Roses — Valentine’s Day was culturally adopted as a romantic holiday which persists to the modern era.
While my new fiancee said she wants nothing special for Valentine’s Day, I strongly suspect this is reverse psychology, which I am willing fall victim to, and make some grand gesture to celebrate our affections.
Whatever you may do to celebrate Valentine’s Day, make the day an important one for your loved ones. Many Sedona businesses are offering specials, and restaurants are providing romantically themed dinners on Feb. 14. Whether a gift or meal or just some time together, use the date as excuse to express how you feel for those you love.
Christopher Fox Graham
"... Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
And driven awey the longe nightes blake!
"Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte; —
Thus singen smale foules for thy sake —
Now welcom somer, with thy sonne sonne,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake...."
— from the 1381 poem"Parlement of Foules," written in Middle English by poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1324-1400)
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