- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

Getting that box of chocolate for a loved one? Maybe a greeting card or even flowers?

Well, that’s all good and well in today’s world, but in ancient Rome, that would have been pretty lame, to say the least, for a mid-February love celebration.

On Feb. 15, the day of the Lupercalia fertility festival, young men would run through the streets of ancient Rome with bloodied strips of goat hide, probably from a newly sacrificed goat. Young women who touched those strips, it was thought, would increase their fertility, says Christopher Bellitto, assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, N.J.

“Now the question is: Does Lupercalia have anything to do with Valentine’s Day? I don’t think so, but some people link the two,” says Mr. Bellitto, who teaches courses in ancient history. “I think it’s a matter of coincidence.”

He explains that Lupercalia had been celebrated for several hundred years when, in the A.D. 490s, as Rome was in its death throws, Pope Gelasius I banned the festival and replaced it with St. Valentine’s Day.

“As the Roman Empire and paganism collapse, Christianity typically fills that void,” Mr. Bellitto says. “St. Valentine’s Day is an example of that.”

The day marked the death of St. Valentine, probably with Mass being celebrated in his name. In those days, the day was not in any way connected to love and affection. That came hundreds of years later. But who was St. Valentine, a man relevant enough to replace the festive and crazy Lupercalia?

“God only knows,” says Judith Hallett, professor and chairwoman of classics at the University of Maryland at College Park. “There is so much early church mythology. … It would have had to have been someone who had a horrible death.”

In fact, there is so much uncertainty about who St. Valentine was — there were at least two priests by that name in the A.D. 200s, and both faced horrible deaths that had nothing to do with love — that the Vatican took the day off the Catholic Church calendar of saints in the 1960s.

“The Catholic Church started replacing legends with history,” Mr. Bellitto says.

St. Valentine didn’t make the cut, and neither did the popular St. Christopher, patron of bachelors and travelers, who used to be celebrated on July 25.

Ms. Hallett agrees with Mr. Bellitto’s view on the Lupercalia. It was not a precursor to Valentine’s Day, she says. Instead, she points to a March 1 festival that celebrated Juno (the goddess of marriage) and love between spouses.

“Husbands would give their wives presents — jewelry, clothes, flowers and probably slaves,” Ms. Hallett says.

However, marriage in Rome was not what it is — or at least aspires to be — today.

“Marriage had nothing to do with people’s feelings. Why should you let temporary passion control your life?” Ms. Hallett says. “It was an alliance between families. Marriages were arranged; it was not about ‘living happily ever after.’”

In other words, marriage was about wealth, status and power. It might help one family increase its status in society, while another might increase its power. Some couples would fall in love over time in these arranged marriages; others were left hungry for love, which they often found outside the marriage, even though extramarital affairs were illegal, Ms. Hallett says.

“The love poems from this time are mostly about extramarital love,” Ms. Hallett says. “To protect the loved one, the poets would almost always use pseudonyms.”

Many poems by Roman poets such as Gaius Valerius Catullus and other love poets have survived, but the March 1 love celebration is long dead.

The idea, however, of celebrating a spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend with words of love also has survived. In the Middle Ages, all of these traditions — St. Valentine’s Day, words of affection and gifts — converged into something fairly close to what Valentine’s Day is today, says Barbara Miller, spokeswoman for the District-based Greeting Card Association.

“In the 1400s, people sent each other valentines, often anonymously,” Ms. Miller says of the tradition, which then was French and English.

The reason the day — St. Valentine’s — started taking on a love connotation was because during medieval times it was thought that birds mated in mid-February, on Feb. 14 to be precise, Mr. Bellitto says.

“So, the day started being associated with love and courtship,” Mr. Bellitto says. “It’s a medieval event only connected by coincidence to ancient times.”

One of the oldest-in-existence love notes from the Middle Ages is a 1415 letter from Duke Charles of Orleans, who had been captured by the English and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The letter is in on display at the British Museum, Ms. Miller says.

By the 1600s, the tradition of exchanging valentines had spread throughout Europe, and by the 1700s, the tradition had caught on in the United States. The stationary at that time was adorned with hearts and cupids, similar to today, Ms. Miller says.

In the 1800s, the Penny Post was established in England and the United States. This meant the postage rate was set at a reasonable price for most people, which led to an explosion in letter- and greeting-card writing, she says.

The cards became more and more intricate, and by the early 1800s, they included details such as handmade lace. In the 1840s, Esther Howland of Massachusetts began selling the first mass-produced Valentine’s cards in the United States.

“She was quite the businesswoman,” Ms. Miller says. “She would sell them for $5 to $10 each, and that was back then.”

Today, 1 billion greeting cards are sent or given out on Valentine’s Day, Ms. Miller says. Only Christmas — with 2 billion cards — is a bigger greeting-card holiday. Greetings cards are by far the most popular way of marking Valentine’s Day. The second-most popular way is date night, and the third most popular way is giving candy, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

So, does it seem all the outrageousness and over-the-top displays of passion are gone from Valentine’s Day — no bloodied goat hides, love poems, sacrificial ceremonies or prayers to the gods?

“That kind of decadence was and is not accepted in Christian culture,” Mr. Bellitto says.

So, basically what we have today is a watered-down version of what used to be carnal and passionate in ancient Rome.

“Yes, I would definitely say so,” Ms. Hallett says. “Valentine’s is like St. Patrick’s Day but in February. It’s a major American tradition.”

Americans are good at creating new holiday traditions, she says. Though they’re hokey and, yes, watered down, on the plus side, they are inclusive. Not just Irish descendents celebrate St. Patrick’s, and not just those with Italian heritage celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Indeed, they’re open to all to drink green beer, send cupid-covered cards and eat way too much chocolate.

“If you’re looking for an excuse to party, details don’t really matter, do they?” Mr. Bellitto says.

A love poem by Gaius Valerius Catullus from about 55 B.C.

Let’s live, my Lesbia, and let’s make love

And let us value all the gossip of

Prudent old men at pennies. When the sun

Sets he can rise again; when we have done

For good and all with our one little light

We sleep forever in one dawnless night.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

Another thousand, then a second hundred,

Then still another thousand, then a hundred,

Then, when our number’s countless, then, my dear,

Scramble the abacus! So we won’t fear

The evil eye of hate, for no one bad

Must know how many kisses we have had.

Translation by Dorothea Wender (1934-2003)

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