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Lupercalia painted by Domenico Beccafumi

It’s St. Valentine’s Day and many newspapers are filled with complaints about how the occasion is a made-up “Hallmark” holiday.  Valentine’s Day is indeed made up (rather like all holidays) but it wasn’t made up recently and its pedigree stretches back before Hallmark Cards…or English…or Christianity.

The holiday we now celebrate as St. Valentine’s Day is rooted in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia–one of the most important festivals of the Roman year after Saturnalia.  Lupercalia was a fertility festival which celebrated the coming rebirth of the year in spring.  The day was partly in celebration of Lupa, the mythical quasi-divine she-wolf who nurtured Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.   But it was more actually in celebration of Faunus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan.  The festival was overseen by the Luperci, priests of the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nursed.  The Luperci sacrificed two goats and a dog (the flamen dialis) to the gods of the grotto.  After a feast, the priests flayed the animals into long bloody strips. Then, clad in goatskins (or, more traditionally, in nothing), the young men among the luperci would dash about the city lashing young women with the bloody strips of skin.  This custom was believed to bring fertility and to prevent pain and difficulty during pregnancy and birth.

The most dramatic part of the holiday is described online at stvalentinesday.org:

Another unique custom of Feast of Lupercalia was the pairing of young boys and girls who otherwise lived a strictly separated lives. During the evening, all the young marriageable girls used to place a chit of their name in a big urn. Each young man used to draw out a name of a girl from the urn and became paired with that girl for the rest of the year. Quite often, the paired couple would fall in love and marry.

So Valentine’s Day has a very ancient tradition of matchmaking and romance–but with an entirely Roman nature which would make eharmony blush.

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