fuzzy notepad

[blog] VD

This month — which I will pretend is still February, because time zones or something — Vladimir Costescu has sponsored a post on:

OK, how about this: write a post on what you think about (the concept of) Valentine’s Day. Bonus points if you write a brief commentary on this video and work it into the post somehow.

I… I’m afraid I don’t know how to work death metal performed by vampires into a post about anything else.

But Valentine’s Day, I think I can do.


I guess it’s interesting to look into where it came from.

The Internet tells me that Valentine’s Day, much like every other interesting holiday, is rooted in an ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia and held on February 13 through 15.

I say “festival”, but, uh. It involved sacrificing a goat and a dog, cutting the goat’s hide into strips, dipping the strips into the goat’s own blood, and then running around town wearing a goatskin and slapping (whipping?) women with the strips. Probably while drunk. But the women were generally on board, because this was supposed to make them fertile. Oh, and the people doing this were priests, of course.

Then they’d have a hookup lottery, where all the single ladies would put their names in a jar, and a guy could draw a name, and the pair would go shack up for the night or maybe the year.

All of this was in service of the god Lupercus, the god of — you guessed it — shepherds.

You zany Romans.

I found half a dozen different descriptions of this holiday that explain it half a dozen very different ways, so I’m going to avoid elaborating too much for fear someone will think I know what I’m talking about. The goal seems to have been a bit fuzzy, anything from purification to fertility to honoring the founders of Rome to just an excuse to drink and eat a lot. About as consistent as our modern holidays, then.

It seems this festival overtook an earlier one called Februalia, which was a purification celebration — essentially, spring cleaning. That’s what February is named for. So there is in fact a very distant tie between the very month of February and Valentine’s Day. Neat. (There was also a god of purification named Februus, though in an interesting twist, he came later and thus was named after the festival/month, not the other way around.)

The chain of events thusfar is something like: it rains in spring, which led to a cleaning festival, which was somehow co-opted by a purification festival, which also involved fertility rites.

I’m pretty sure we don’t still do the goat-blood-slapping thing, so something else must have happened.


During the 200s, the Roman Emperor was Claudius II, a man who was tragically unaware that the decline of the Roman Empire had begun in 190.

The first thing I read was that he had the goofy idea that unmarried men made better soldiers than married men, so he decreed it illegal for young people to marry. Some Christian priests were officiating weddings in secret, and one of them was named Valentine, and that’s why he was executed. This is all according to some Christian website that’s really trying to drive home the martyrdom angle.

But then I checked the liberal hedonistic pit Wikipedia, and it tells me that no such decree was ever issued, which rather puts a hole in the story.

Regardless, there was definitely a Christian priest named Valentime who was executed on February 14, 269. Apocryphally, his last words were a note that he signed “your Valentine”. And then he had his head cut off. Aww.

Astoundingly, Claudius had another Valentine put to death exactly four years later — on February 14, 273. A third Valentine may also have been executed in Africa on February 14, but nobody knows any specifics.

It was a couple hundred years before the reigning pope decided that this Lupercalia thing simply had to go, and invoked that most hallowed of Christian traditions: stamping out a pagan holiday by making up a new one on the same day. And so February 14 became St. Valentine’s Day. It probably should’ve been St. Valentines’ Day.

Or, uh, so the story goes, but this is pretty murky too. I’m not sure if the reuse of the date was intentional, or a huge coincidence — frankly, given how many festivals the Romans had, they’d have had a hard time inventing a new holiday that didn’t overlap an existing Roman thing. I also have absolutely no idea what St. Valentines’ Day was actually for, insofar as days devoted to saints are actually for anything in particular. The best I’ve found is “feasting”.


A few casual retellings of this story implicitly (or even explicitly) link St. Valentines’ Day directly to romance right from the beginning, based on the marriage story. But it seems that there’s no record of any romantic connotations until a poem written by Chaucer in 1382, which is extra weird because he seemed to be nodding at an existing tradition. Another nod appears in a charter written in 1400, founding a court which by all other appearances seemed to never have existed.

Reading about this has been a truly surreal experience. I initially avoided looking at Wikipedia for fear I would just end up paraphrasing it, and instead found a dozen conflicting stories that all turned out to be wrong anyway. The actual history (well, as told by Wikipedia) appears to be full of huge gaps that we just don’t know anything about. All I can really say for sure is that Valentine’s Day exists, at least one guy named Valentine was once put to death on the same day, and the Romans had a festival around the same time.

The rest of the history isn’t nearly so bizarre. In the early 1800s, companies started printing pre-made Valentine cards, and cheap postage made it feasible to mail them around. Momentum built from there, and of course, anyone with something vaguely romantic to sell latched on.

Modern day

I can’t remember ever doing anything particularly romantic for Valentine’s Day. No one in this house is really big on holidays; we don’t even do anything special for Christmas. So I don’t have particularly strong feelings here.

In fact, my strongest association with the day is still from grade school. I don’t know if this is a cultural or regional thing or what, but I had multiple teachers who expected every student to go buy one of those big boxes of 30 cheesy Valentine’s Day cards branded with popular cartoons or whatever and give one to every other student.

I never understood this. I still don’t. I can see how it might have come about: kids exchange cards, some kids don’t get any, they feel bad, teachers see an obvious way to compensate. But then what’s the point of doing it at all? What does this even have to do with romance any more? Did it ever, considering I wasn’t even 10 when this was happening, or was it always a goofy popularity contest?

Here’s a better tradition for young kids, I think: the teacher buys a mountain of chocolate and gives it out. It’s based on my own tradition of buying a mountain of discount chocolate on February 15. Everyone wins!

Come to think of it, those incredibly cheesy cards might be one of my favorite parts of Valentine’s Day. Not the mass-produced Spongebob ones, but knowingly-corny ones created by artists, like the set Mel made a few years ago (some of which only make sense in the context of a story they were telling at the time). I heart-ily endorse creating more of this kind of nonsense.

Another hallowed tradition is for single people to lament that they’re single. I guess, anyway. Like the Super Bowl thing from a few weeks ago, this is something I’ve seen complained about much more than I’ve seen actually happen. I don’t really know anything about human mating rituals, but lamenting one’s lack of a partner seems exactly opposite to the spirit of Valentine’s Day, which at its heart seems to be about flirting. Whether there’s an actual connection or not, maybe that Roman holiday had it right: everyone should put their names in an urn, draw partners at random, and hook up for a night. While dressed up as goats. That sounds like a good plan.

Hmm. I just don’t really have a lot to say here. Valentine’s Day is the pink and red holiday that fills the seasonal aisle after Christmas but before the Easter candy has been stocked. It comes, and it goes, and I think once we used it as an excuse to go to a restaurant. Its history is more confusing than outrageous, and its modern incarnation is a fairly quiet blip on the calendar. So I think that’s all I’ve got. Sorry :)

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(illus. by Rumwik)