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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine's Past

With help from Matthew Sakey

Red heartFlorists, chocolatiers and the makers of those heart-shaped sweets stamped with kind words have made a fortune because of Valentine's Day. When we think of this day, we think of cards and romantic dinners.

In truth, the history of Valentine's Day is equal parts blood, violence, persecution and paper hearts filled with romantic words.

The uncensored history of Valentine's Day

Saint Valentine was a real person — though historians aren't exactly sure which real person the day refers to, as there are three saints with similar names from roughly the same time period. Historians theorise that the Saint Valentine of Valentine's Day fame was a third-century Christian priest serving in Rome.

Claudius II, the emperor at the time, made the strange decision that single men fought better than married ones. Since the Roman empire was at this point beset on all sides by unfriendlies, Claudius II banned marriage among young men.

Apparently Valentine — or Valens, or Valentius, or Valentinian, those in the know are not sure of the name — continued performing secret marriages in defiance of the imperial edict. When Claudius found out (as emperors always do), Valentine got chucked into prison. While awaiting a doubtlessly painful execution, the legend goes, he fell in love with his jailer's daughter, and sent her secret love letters signed "From your Valentine". Valentine's execution was supposedly carried out on February 14, 270, and the rest is somewhat dubious history.

The Romans were the source of another potential origin of the day. Much earlier than the above story, pagan Romans celebrated the Feast of the Lupercalia, one of the many orgy-centric all-day bashes enjoyed by Romans. During festival time, women would write love letters and leave them in a large urn. Each Roman man would draw a note from the urn and pursue the woman who had written the message they chose.

Lupercalia was also held on February 14, and in addition to the secret messages, it involved the chopping up of goats, running through the streets naked while swinging goat pieces and similarly unappetizing traditions which thankfully did not make it into the festivities of the modern valentine's Day. As Christianity took over the empire, Lupercalia was banned, and Valentine's Day was offered as a substitute.

So while you look forward to this most romantic days of the year, remember the chopped up goats, the executed priest and all the other grim reminders that though Saint Valentine's Day is a happy time for lovers now, it wasn't always so.

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