Valentine’s day. Hell all round for many people, single, attached or somewhere in between. The most common states? Worried about not “having anyone”. Freaking out in case the person you already love suddenly decides that, because you didn’t buy enough flowers or make a reservation in time, you clearly can’t be in love with them. Livid because now that you’ve chosen your life mate, you don’t get any mystery cards. Pining over the "brief encounters" column in Metro and wondering if any of them are about you. Gutted that despite being single, you don’t get any mystery cards. Fielding the inevitable newly-married couple’s “singles dinners” so they can get kicks out of unsuitable match making. Unable to look your secret crush in the eye when you see them at the train station every day. Stressed because while you’re head-over-heels in love, your best friend is utterly bereft and heart broken. Not to mention handling the near-constant barrage of dating websites, Tom Hanks films and love-themed TV programmes (E4’s Top 300 Lesbian Soap Opera Kisses or whatever they decide to cobble together) whilst trying to maintain an air of devil-may-care insouciance about the whole thing.
Hmmph. Who, you might ask, was St Valentine? Who do we have to blame for this sorry state of emotional saturation? Valentinus was a Roman priest, martyred during the reign of Claudius II (the soldier emperor, not the perve). He was caught conducting weddings for Christian couples and generally aiding-and-abetting the followers of Jesus – a crime in those days (around 269 – 270). Claudius didn’t think Valentine was entirely bad until he tried to convert him to Christianity. So the Emperor had him beaten with clubs and stoned. He was still alive, so they chopped his head off outside the Flaminian Gate.
This is a picture of his severed head. It’s now kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.
The actual festival of St Valentine’s day took over from a (possibly pre-Roman) festival called Lupercalia, which was held on February 15. It was a spring rite designed to scare off evil spirits, purify the city and generally make things healthy and fertile (it also took the place of an even earlier spring festival called Februa, which is the root of the month's name).
The Lupercalia was named after the Roman god Lupercus, who was related to Faunus, their equivalent of the Greek god Pan. Lupercus is the god of shepherds, so his priests tended to hang around nude except for a goatskin. It was also part in honour of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus.
At the Lupercalia, the young citizens of Rome (mainly noble youths and magistrates – the Luperci, or brothers of the wolf, included Caesar, Mark Antony and more) would kick off by sacrificing two male goats and a dog. A bit of wool would be dipped in milk and sacrificial blood, then used to wipe the heads of the Luperci, at which they were supposed to smile and laugh.
Then they’d have a big feast, each cut two strips from the victims’ skins and run around the walls of the old Palatine city. As they ran, girls and young women would line the route, and the Luperci would whip them with these bloody strips – if you were hit by them, it would make you fertile and ease the pains of childbirth. Even in the fifth century, when “paganism” was outlawed, the Christian Romans still celebrated the Lupercalia – but it was something the plebs did, not something the aristos bothered with.
Now, of course, it has all changed and evolved from something with meaning (fertility etc) to a day that almost celebrates the superficial. We are encouraged to take the easy way out, buying little white bears holding garish hearts, two dozen roses because That's What Women Want, whipped into a panic by competitive spending with friends ("yeah well I'm taking MINE to Nobu and I'm getting her KNICKERS made from SPIDER SILK," "yeah well I'm taking MINE to VENICE and getting her lingerie that has been WASHED in the tears of ANGELS").
Whatever happened to just going for a walk and carving each other's names in a tree trunk, or picking wild flowers, or just a nice card and a kiss? Now, though, Valentine’s Day is the second most gifted holiday next to Christmas. The most lucrative sectors for marketers are the lovers staples: flowers, chocolates and jewellery. This year, Britons are expected to spend £107.2m on flowers, £55.4m on chocolates, £89.1m on jewellery, while £82.5m will go on "other gifts". Over a billion cards are exchanged worldwide on Feb 14th, and the sad thing is, most of them already have the Hallmark message written in them.
On balance, I think I’d rather do the whole chasing chicks naked with a fresh bit of goat skin up The Strand than suffer the choice of either an interminable evening of shit telly at home or finding all pubs and restaurants full of couples who aren’t talking to one another because they’re so done in by being “spontaneous”. Okay so it's not a completely made up festival, but if you love people, you shouldn't have to be told when to be nice. So there.
ps - The St Valentine's Day Massacre is a whole different ball game, but fascinating. Al Capone, Chicago gangsters etc. Click this to read about it.