Valentine’s day: The not-so-sweet celebration it once was

Written by Neal F. Litherland. Posted in Uncategorized

Published on February 08, 2012 with No Comments

Most of us know that our holidays, as we have them today, are the product of lots of hard work, marketing and revisions. Even those holidays some may consider of lesser importance have been cleaned up and brushed off from their wilder, party days.

But hasn’t Valentine’s Day always been a day for lovers? Well yes… and no.

History’s a tricky beast, and the closest point that many historians agree on for our modern celebration of Valentine’s Day goes all the way back to Ancient Rome.

Rome, which was very big on holidays and feast days, had a celebration called Lupercalia which lasted from Feb. 13 to 15. And, in keeping with traditional Roman form, the celebrations were a tad… extreme.

There was the usual wining, feasting and animal sacrifices.  But a part of the festivities was to strip the hide from the sacrificial animal and whip women with it. Not hard enough to wound; just hard enough to take the fertility of the sacrifice and confer it onto the women.

 After this, as part of the ceremony, single Roman men would draw the names of single women. In true Roman fashion, the couples would then do their best to get pregnant. Sometimes this ended in marriage and children, but many times it didn’t.  By the standards of any culture that followed Rome, this was pretty extreme, barbaric behavior.

In addition to this ceremony, Rome executed two men named Valentine on Feb. 14 in the third century, though in different years.

In the fifth century the holiday was switched to Feb. 14 and, combined with a Norman festival, gave us most of the foundation of our modern Valentine’s Day. 

It was at this point the celebration on Feb. 14, while not as extreme as it once was, was still mostly a drunken feast day. The difference was that the feast day now honored the martyring of St. Valentine rather than being a pagan Roman celebration.

What turned Valentine’s Day into the celebration we know today, however, are two major forces:  romanticism and capitalism.  Famous writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized Valentine’s Day in their works. This moved it away from being a festival about fertility–a celebration of the resurgence of life after winter and the planting of new seeds–to that of a more civilized holiday dedicated to courtship and tender emotions.

Of course, as the work of great poets and playwrights became popular and these sentimental views of Valentine’s Day spread, it was businesses, and eventually corporations, that joined in the fray.

Nowadays Valentine’s Day brings in billions of dollars in the sale of cards, flowers, candy, jewelry and a variety of other gifts without which our modern celebration would not be complete.

So there you have it, the historical journey of a holiday from a back water Roman revelry to a Renaissance of romance. And none of it would have been possible without pop culture and business coming together to apply a new coat of lacquer and succeeding in transforming a simple fertility celebration into a big, important day.

   For more on Valentine’s Day origins, visit

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About Neal F. Litherland

All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Chronicle. Neal Litherland is a Valparaiso resident who has been a freelance writer for several years. A graduate of Indiana University, he holds a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice. He offers advice on money-saving tips using common-sense tactics. He welcomes suggestions and comments. Contact Neal:

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