Saturday, February 16, 2008

The humble Valentine

While many of us may suspect that St. Valentine’s Day was invented by the modern greeting card, flower and candy industries, the holiday is ancient – and unsaintly.

More than 2,000 years ago, Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a fertility feast that included ceremonies in which men drew women by lots. When the early Christian church tried to “depaganize” Roman feasts, it turned this one into a festival of love in which people drew the names of saints instead of women. It was named for St. Valentine, probably because his feast day roughly coincided with the mid-February celebration of Lupercalia. The priest had been beaten and beheaded around Feb. 14, 270, for practicing Christianity.

By the 19th Century the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day in England, at least, was not unlike today’s. One British author wrote in 1873: “The approach of the day is now heralded by the appearance in the printsellers’ shop windows of vast numbers of missives calculated for use on this occasion, each generally consisting of a single sheet of post paper, on the first page of which is seen some ridiculous coloured caricature of the male or female figure, with a few burlesque verses below.” These, the writer adds, are employed chiefly by “the humbler classes.”

So have a humble – but happy – Valentine’s Day!

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