Where does Valentine's Day come from? Let us introduce you to the festival of Lupercalia, a festival when naked young men and women ran around whipping one another with animal hides.
Valentine’s Day is a weird holiday when you think about it. On a usually cold day—February 14—we eat chocolate, give greeting cards, celebrate romance, and find the need to make a big deal out of it in schools. While the modern holiday is, often correctly, viewed as a “Hallmark Holiday” the origins of the festival go back more than two thousand years to a Pagan ritual with strange customs and festivities that would make a modern romantic blush.
The Roman festival of Lupercalia is that Pagan ritual, and a very good candidate to be the original Valentine’s Day celebration. The origins of the holiday are a touch obscure, though it seems likely that many elements were pre-Roman. Lupercalia does seem to have inherited some of its activities from the earlier festival of Februa, which was dedicated to springtime purification. The name of February is derived from this festival.
What did people do during the Roman festival of Lupercalia?
A cult of priests known as the Luperci offered sacrifices of goats and dogs to the goddess Juno. This ceremony was carried out in the cave where the legendary founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, were saved by the she-wolf who nursed them. After the sacrifice, a feast was held. The hides of the sacrificed animals were then cut into strips by the priests.
Cool, huh? Well, now it gets strange.
Fertility rites were performed, in which naked women were struck with the hides of the sacrificed animals as the priests ran around Palatine hill counter-clockwise. This was intended to make the women more fertile and aid in childbirth. After this, a matchmaking lottery was held. All of this took place with the help of a lot of drinking. Clothing was optional for members of the public, and people rarely wore it as a result.
Plutarch, the great Roman historian, described it as such:
..many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
Others agree with Plutarch, telling us that the city was filled with naked young men and women who ran around whipping one another with animal hides.
Some of the activities that we know about have meanings that are lost to us. For example, after the sacrifice of the goats and dogs, two Luperci would have their foreheads anointed in blood from the sacrificial knife. They would then have the blood wiped off with wool that had been soaked in milk. They were then expected to laugh or smile that this turn of events.
The exact meaning of their expressions is lost to time.
The Luperci seeking out targets to whip as depicted by Adam Elsheimer. (Getty Images)
Lupercalia wasn’t a one-off thing either.
After the Romans added the month of February to their calendar, Lupercalia was placed on the fifteenth day of that month. The festival was popular. This was known and used by Julius Caesar when he publicly denied a crown during the festival, which added to his cult of personality. Lupercalia was celebrated continuously until around 500 C.E when regulations designed to stamp out Pagan rituals helped bring it to an end.
A member of the public armed with a whip to bring forth fertility. Was this the start of Valentine's Day? (Getty Images)
Some researchers argue that Lupercalia was mostly done away with by Pope Gelasius I, who may have placed a feast of purification on that day. Others say that the festival was allowed to continue, with Christian overtones and clothing added. In any case, Valentine’s Day, named after a saint killed by the Romans, retains the approximate date and many of the romantic themes of the Roman Lupercalia.
While the evidence for the exact fate of the holiday remains fuzzy, it is true that many Pagan festivals were co-opted by the Christian church rather than abolished. This makes it not only possible but likely that the holidays are related. Some historians, however, still reject the notion that Valentine’s Day was purposefully created to push out Lupercalia.
How did we go from Lupercalia to St. Valentine's Day?
Since the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day has gotten progressively sweeter. This phenomenon was largely promoted by writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare who romanticized the courtly love aspects of the holiday. The first Valentine’s card was sent in 1415 by a French nobleman. Americans sent handwritten cards to one another as the holiday gained traction during the revolution. In the 1900’s the cards started to be mass produced.
This collection of Valentine's gifts in Cambodia suggests that the mass production goes much further than ever before. (Getty Images)
It all seems a far cry from the drunken revelry in Rome. Today, we would hardly suppose that there was much of a relationship at all between the drunken Pagan fertility rites of Rome and Valentine’s Day if we were to watch both take place.
While Valentine’s Day has become a fun, commercialized, slightly silly holiday dedicated to candy, cheesy TV specials, cards, and overpriced romantic dinners, the origins may be wilder than anything we would imagine. It is inevitable that holidays evolve, and customs change, but how severely they may do so is variable. The story of Lupercalia and Valentine's Day may show how a holiday can retain the same themes over 2,000 years and do a complete 180-degree turn on how those themes are expressed and celebrated.
So go out and have a nice Valentine’s Day, and maybe be thankful that you don’t have to dodge naked people with whips on your way to the store.
This holiday season, ask the questions you don't know the answer to.
Sometimes, you just can't relate to your relatives. Whether it's sports, politics, or past events, gathering around a dinner table during the holiday season can be a daunting prospect. Communication expert Angie McArthur explains some of her cardinal rules for connecting with your family and friends, and she identifies one of the biggest errors people make: asking the wrong questions. The root of the word 'question' is 'quest', as in endeavoring to know something—but how often is that really our motivation? As society reaches a new peak of polarization, in tense moments we may find ourselves asking questions just to prove our own points correct, which Angie McArthur explains are called leading questions. There is a more powerful method you can use: open questions, which are fueled by genuine curiosity, connection, and lead to a meaningful exchange. Chief among her tips, McArthur advises that this holiday season, you ask the questions you *don't* already know the answer to. Keeping these tips in mind, you might not merely survive the holidays—you might actually enjoy them. Angie McArthur is the co-author of Reconcilable Differences: Connecting in a Disconnected World.
Two things really ruin the holiday season: bon bon jokes and egocentrism. This study helps take the latter out of the gift-giving equation.
Everybody has dealt with it: giving a gift only to realize afterward that it was a poor choice. Doomed to spend eternity in a drawer or tossed out with the rest of the rubbish in spring. Sometimes that error isn’t clear at first, and we only learn of our mistake years later when we find it unopened in a box somewhere in the attic.
Why do we do this?
A study by Jeff Galak, Julian Givi, and Elanor F. Williams, suggests that when we decide what to get someone, we focus primarily on how they will react when they get it and less on how much they will actually enjoy owning it.
Giving a bad gift can be a big deal, in some cases driving the giver and recipient apart, showing a lack of understanding that might just be the trivial last straw. So, what do we do wrong, and how can we fix it? It comes down to understanding how people in the two different positions view the idea of a “good gift”, say the researchers. As they put it:
“Givers interpret that to mean that the gift will make the recipient feel delighted, impressed, surprised, and/or touched when he or she receives and opens it, whereas recipients find value in factors that allow them to better utilize and enjoy a gift during their subsequent ownership of it.”
So while you might enjoy the look on your mom's face when she opens the box of her new 75-inch television, the fact that she have no place to put it later will be a bit of a downer for her. Conversely, you might not get much joy out of giving them a new set of shaving razors, but they will thank you when they use them.
In a similar study, it was found that when people have to buy gifts for more people, they are likely to buy gifts which are more unique, but less desirable overall. The persons studied did this for many reasons, but most of all because they feared being seen as just buying one gift for everyone. Even when the persons getting the gifts would never know about the similarities.
And the cost of these well-intentioned? Recipients generally assume gifts to be nearly a third less valuable than the prices paid by givers. Suggesting that when people make mistakes in gift giving, the amount of combined monetary and emotional value lost is considerable.
Noooooooo, not another oven mitt!
So, how can we avoid these pitfalls?
The obvious answer is to consider how useful your gift will be in the long run to the recipient. A gift that is large, expensive, and fun to think about may be a much worse choice than a simple, moderately priced, and dull gift with utility.
The second is to consider buying gifts for one person at a time; in the study where people made less desirable choices in the attempt to be unique, shopping for fewer people at a time reduced the gap of perceived desirability between giver and recipient.
In the end, most of the issue in bad gift giving comes down to a question of egocentrism. What we want to give is not always what people want to get. While we can take definite steps to improve our ability to make a good choice, we must also try to step into the shoes of another person and view the gift from their perspective – no easy task.
So happy holidays, and good luck buying the perfect gift. It looks like you’ll need it.