The whack history of Valentine’s Day: how we came from pagan rituals to Hallmark cards
Today, we know Valentine’s Day for sweetness and chocolate and doilies and grand romantic gestures. But a millennium before our time, the holiday that would become Valentine’s Day saw ancient Romans running drunk and naked in the streets, brandishing whips and performing ritual sacrifice.
The holiday looked more like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock horror movie rather than a Nancy Meyers rom-com.
The holiday known as Lupercalia is the first iteration of a Valentine’s Day-like holiday. Said drunk and naked Roman men, each Feb. 15, would honor Lupercal, the she-wolf who cared for the mythical Roman twins Romulus and Remus. But their manner of honoring this pagan figure wasn’t exactly rated PG-13. In true Roman fashion, the celebration was intense and gorey.
Young men would strip and sacrifice dogs and goats. Then, the flesh of the newly-sacrificed goats was fashioned into whips, and the men would descend upon the city and chase around young women, flagellating them. In some cases, women actually lined up to be literally hit on because it was considered a fertility blessing.
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They also had some of the first swingers’ parties: men would reportedly draw a woman’s name from a bowl and they were coupled for the duration of the festival, sometimes until the next year’s celebration. Some even married.
Eventually, the hedonistic vigor of the festival died down – nudity became less common and men would whip women’s hands rather than their bodies. In the 3rd century A.D. Emperor Claudius II imprisoned and executed a man named Valentine for secretly marrying Christian couples, which was illegal at the time. The man we now know as Saint Valentine was beheaded on Feb. 14.
Then, in the 5th century A.D., Pope Gelasius I banned Lupercalia and called for a feast day on Feb. 14 to honor Saint Valentine. From there, William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer romanticized the holiday in their writings, and over time, the holiday became the secular celebration we know it as today.
But the legend of Lupercalia still remains. It’s said that traditional colors of Valentine’s Day, red and white, represent the blood from the ritual sacrifices and the white represents milk, a clean slate and procreation.
So maybe, if you’ve not already got a hot date lined up, draw a name from a bowl.