The Actual, Completely True History of Valentine's Day (Give or Take a Fact or Two)
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The tradition of Valentine's Day began, as all truly subversive things do, in ancient Rome. On February 15th, Romans would celebrate the festival of the Lupercalia, a holiday created to honor two Roman gods: Pan, the god of fertility, and Juno, guardian of women and issuer of restraining orders. During this time, the men would be instructed on seduction and procreation, and women would be taught creative ways to say "no" and how to wear bras with impossibly complicated latches.
The holiday was originally intended to begin as winter drew to a close and the earliest spring flowers came into bloom, carrying with them thoughts of renewal and birth. But because the Roman men were anxious "to get some," they decided to book the festival ahead of schedule.
In one of the more popular ceremonies of Lupercalia, the names of young women were drawn from a box and allotted to available men. The men would attempt to win the affection of their chosen ladies, mostly by following them around and repeatedly asking "Hey baby, buy you a drink?" The festivities would come to a close when the women filed rape charges and the men would spend the remainder of the year doing community service.
Long after the Roman empire collapsed (which some historians suggest had something to do with the lack of actual sex taking place), the belief that cold weather inspired love continued to flourish. Some ancient cultures believed that birds, particularly lovebirds, began to mate on February 14th. But it was later discovered that it was just some guy in the bushes, and he was beaten and hanged, which began the tradition of "Kill the Pervert Day," which continues to be a popular holiday in certain parts of Alabama.
Eventually the Christians claimed February 14th as their own, naming it "St. Valentine's Day." It was never clear exactly which saint they were intending to commemorate. There were at least two saints of that name and several martyrs, and all of them were convinced that it was actually their holiday. When the Valentines attempted to settle the matter once and for all, the Christians were elusive and did not return anybody's phone calls. When confronted, the Christians claimed that they weren't comfortable with a commitment at this point in their lives and wanted to "keep their options open." When the Valentines publicly protested, the Christian argued that they had just been flirting and didn't intend to lead the Valentines on by naming a holiday after them.
Historians believe that the real St. Valentine was probably a Flaminian Way priest who, in A.D. 269, succeeded in converting his prison guard to Christianity on February 14th while in jail for helping Christian martyrs. Of course, soon afterwards he was brutally raped by the guard and his friends, which in turn inspired the gay prison sex movies that have become a Valentine's Day pastime in many urban dwellings.
The modern celebration of St. Valentine's Day probably grew out of a tradition that started in about the 14th century. For many years, young people in France and England would get together on St. Valentine's Eve. Each person became the "valentine" of the one who drew his or her name from a valentine box. Then they would spy on their appointed valentine for over a week, hiding in their closets, rummaging through their garbage, learning their daily routine and, if they were lucky, catching them in an unguarded moment. What happened next is unclear, but we can only guess that it was not pleasant.
Another custom once held that the first bachelor an unmarried woman encountered on Valentine's Day would become her husband. According to one 19th Century account, when she met him, she would quote him the following verse: "Good morrow, Valentine, I go today, To wear for you what you must pay, A pair of gloves next Easter day." The entrapped man would then present her with a pair of gloves during the Easter holiday, at which time her husband would beat him into a bloody pulp, as she had completely forgotten about the glove thing and had gone and married some other guy.
And then in 1929, Al Capone ruined the reputation of Valentine's Day forever when he had a bunch of gangsters executed on February 14th. In effect, it was a lover's tiff between Capone and George "Bugs" Moran, both of whom thought the other was moving in on their territory, or "bitch." Today it is impossible to think of Valentine's Day without remembering that fabled massacre, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view.
Eric Spitznagel knows all about history.