The origins of Valentine’s Day seem somewhat mysterious at a glance, why would buying flowers for a loved one be in any way related to the death of an early Christian martyr, St Valentine? Well amongst the theories is the correlation with the Greco-Roman festival of Lupercalia.
Lupercalia was celebrated in the 5 century B.C as a festival for fertility, and young men would, according to Plutarch, run around the streets naked whacking women with shaggy thongs (called Februa); if you got hit, it would supposedly increase the likeliness of your getting pregnant. In the Attic calendar, the month of Gamelion, January-February was also the Athenian month of marriage. There is a strong prevailing thought that many Christian holidays are extensions of Pagan ones and going on the writings of the venerable Bede (an early Church historian), Pope Gelasius I banned Pagan festivals like Lupercalia and introduced the Christian feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary. The fact that purification was one of the principle tenets of Lupercalia, make the comparison quite straight forward. However why is the celebration romantic? It would seem that it has potentially evolved through literary myth, into the not so romantic, but commercially successful, Hallmark greeting card day.
Perhaps Lupercalia is best represented by other festivals around the world that are also underway at this time of year and day: the festival of Mardi Gras and Carnival. ‘Mardi Gras’ translates in various places around the world as ‘Fat Tuesday’ and ‘Carnival’ as ‘Goodbye to Meat’, the celebration of eating well and letting loose before the fasting season of Lent begins. This factors in with both Lupercalia, a festival that doubles up fertility with the advent of fasting or purification, the Christian St. Valentines day and the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary with its romantic connotations and celebration before Lent. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many creatures in the animal kingdom are getting down to it at this time of year. Perhaps the ancients were telling us this is the time to rut, the conditions that a baby conceived in February would tie in with the time of the year that food is at its most bountiful. However there is a long list of factors that show the optimal time to breed and it is perhaps not as simple as this.
So the question of the practicality of Lent is raised: what makes this time of year so widely important to western civilization in both a religious and secular way? Perhaps the answer lies meekly in that we are preparing for spring, so here’s a taste of what’s to come.
The Ancient Babylonians seem to provide the earliest source for celebrating Lent, the celebration of the death and birth of the goddess Tammuz by their mystical religion. The death and birth of gods and goddesses that represent fertility and essentially life, leads to the early equation of deifying the things you need and are in awe of. So the worship of springtime itself seems an obvious choice, although this, juxtaposed by a celebration leading to fasting up to the first days of spring does beg questions. Why would you celebrate before fasting? Perhaps to have one last blast before economising for 40 days, and this economy before spring seems an obvious thing to do in pastoral agrarian cultures. The celebration of what’s to come albeit after a period of frugality, which may just compound the meaning of spring.
Spring is a vital time of the year for civilization, in order to maximise the productivity that springs promises for late summer and consequently surviving winter, agrarian cultures must pay attention seasonally. So perhaps there is more to Carnival, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s day, and The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary than meets the eye. Whether today, this represents a religious practice or a cultural celebration, or even a tradition that has no real significance in modern life, it certainly is celebrated in some style!