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A View of Valentine’s Day

Most of us recognize Feb. 14 as Valentine’s Day. We think of hearts, flowers, candy, cards and Cupid. These symbols dominate the holiday. And like all holiday symbols and traditions, they arose in contexts.

These contexts may be seasonal, historical and religious–not necessarily in that order or exclusive of one another.
For example, one may wonder about the colors–red and white–associated with Valentine’s Day. Viewing the holiday in its seasonal context may provide answers.
“Red hearts and red roses on a field of white,” wrote folklorist Jack Santino of the day’s colorful images. “Is white for the lingering snows of February? Red and white–roses of spring in the snows of winter?”
Considering a holiday’s seasonal frame illuminates ideas otherwise obscured. If one examines the seasonal context of Valentine’s Day further, one finds striking parallels to Halloween.
“Valentine’s Day is very much the opposite of Halloween,” wrote Santino.
For example, Halloween is roughly seven weeks before the winter solstice, whereas Valentine’s Day is roughly seven weeks after. Halloween begins the journey into winter, whereas Valentine’s Day begins the journey into spring.
“Halloween is represented by harvested crops and images of death at a time when the days grow shorter,” wrote Santino, “while Valentine’s Day is symbolized by living flowers and symbols of life (the heart) at a time when the days grow longer.”
Valentine Day’s prominent colors may also be explained within its religious and historical context.
“February was also the season of the Lupercalia,” wrote longtime Latin educator Janet Burns, an expert on the Latin language for About.com. Lupercalia celebrations included fertility rites.
One ritual involved the blood of sacrificed animals, as well as milk, Santino noted.
“The colors of blood and milk are red and white, the colors of Valentine’s Day,” he wrote.
Of course, other scholars believe February derived its name from the Sabine god Februus, wrote Burns. Still others believe the name came from the fertility god, Iuno, who was nicknamed “Februaria.”
But in both cases, February is bound to the notion of fertility. Valentine’s Day still emphasizes this idea, though it has been somewhat censored.
“Western European and American culture translates sexuality into romantic love, and Cupid, the Roman version of the Greek god Eros, has become the god of love associated with Saint Valentine’s Day,” wrote Santino.
A “tamer” version of this seasonal celebration resulted from the Christian church’s attempt to displace the Roman festival.
“In A.D. 469, Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honor the martyr Valentine, in the hope of supplanting the Lupercalia,” wrote Santino.
Several stories exist about a martyr known as Valentine. Most paint him as a Christian official who performed various acts of kindness upon penalty of death. One version says he wrote notes to his lover and signed them, “From your Valentine.” The tradition of exchanging “Valentines” thus carries legendary, if not historical, precedent.
But the Lupercalia also boasted a tradition of boys drawing girls’ names. The boys would then escort the girls during the celebration.
“The church tried to initiate a custom of drawing saints’ names from a box,” wrote Santino. “Participants were expected to emulate the saint whose name they drew for the rest of the year. Not surprisingly, this custom failed to take root.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.