The Feast of Lubercalia


Some claim that Valentine's Day had its origins as a pagan tradition in the third century in ancient Rome.  A festival was held on February 15 that involved the celebration of fertility and honored Juno Februata, the goddess of love.  It was celebrated as a spring festival.  Their calendar was different at that time, with February falling in early springtime.

In ancient Rome, the lives of young boys and girls were strictly separate.  However, during the Lupercalia Festival, young maidens would write love notes or "billets" that were placed in an urn and drawn at random by adolescent men;  thus a man was assigned a woman companion for their mutual entertainment and pleasure (often sexual) for the duration of a year, after which another lottery would be staged.


Early Christians, clearly a dour bunch, frowned on these lascivious goings-on.  In an attempt to abolish the erotic festivities, the early Church Fathers encouraged celebrants to substitute the names of saints into an urn.  Boys and girls then drew a name.  During the following year, the participants were to emulate the ideals represented by the particular saint they had drawn.  Not too surprisingly, this prudish version of Lupercalia proved unpopular, and died a quick death.


But the early Christians were anything but quitters, so they went on the Plan B ... modulate the overly sexual nature of Lupercalia by turning this "feast of the flesh" into a "ritual for romance!"

This time, in 496, the stern Pope Gelasius outlawed the mid-February Lupercian festival.  The Church selected a single saint to do battle with the pagan goddess Juno ... St. Valentine (Valentinus).  Since Valentinus had been martyred on February 14, the church could also pre-empt the annual February 15 celebration of Lupercalia.  The feast was later dropped from the present day liturgical calendar in 1969.

Despite the efforts of the Church, Valentine's Day continued to echo Lupercalia in at least one respect ... men and women, married or single, would draw lots to select a "Valentine."  Once paired, the couple exhanged gifts and sometimes love tokens as well.


The custom of lottery drawings to select Valentines persisted well into the eighteenth century.  Gradually, however, a shift took place.  No longer did both parties exhange gifts.  Instead, gift-giving became solely the responsibility of the man!

This new twist helped to finally bring an end to the random drawing of names, since many men were unhappy about giving gifts to women who were not of their choosing.  And now that individuals were free to select their own Valentine, the celebration took on a new and much more serious meaning for couples.

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