Be mine, Valentinus, but watch your back

Posted Feb. 12, 2010, at 8:09 p.m.

You think Valentine’s Day is all hearts and flowers, cards and candlelight dinners.

What do you know? Silly goose.

It’s really all blood and guts, animal sacrifice, beating and beheading, with a few fertility rites thrown in.

The reason you will blow $75 on flowers this week is the feast of Lupercalia, the ancient fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. On the Ides of February, when everyone was bored silly, Romulus and Remus would order a goat, or maybe a dog, to be sacrificed. The young boys would then cut the dead animal into strips, dip them into blood and take to the streets to find dates.

Honest to God.

They would slap both their crops and their honeys with the bloody hides, to ensure fertility. I think flowers are better and much less messy.

The women did not shriek in terror, but welcomed the fertility ritual. If a pretty young thing came home with a clean toga in those days, the mother sent her back out to get splattered.

Once all the available ladies were so bloodied, they would place their names in a big urn in the town square. Kind of like computer dating. The dashing Roman males would then pick a name out of the urn and get a guaranteed date for one year. This day, naturally, was Feb. 14 to coincide with the mating season of birds. Naturally this yearlong pairing ended up in a number of marriages, since everyone was so fertile.

Now Claudius II was an aggressive, ambitious emperor. He wanted a young man’s fancy to be focused on the foreign battlefield, not on the Italian beauties. This spoilsport not only canceled Lupercalia, but also banned marriage altogether.

Our boy Valentinus was a holy priest in Rome, but he knew what love was. Over the emperor’s objections, he continued to perform marriages for young lovers. Claudius heard all about it and threw Valentinus into prison under a death sentence for, naturally, Feb. 14.

There are, to be sure, numerous legends of Valentinus. You can take your pick.

One holds that while awaiting his execution, he restored the vision of his jailer’s blind daughter. Another says that he penned her a final farewell, signing it “from your Valentine.”

Think of all the trouble that has caused forgetful men everywhere.

We don’t know whether it was because of that valentine, a refusal to renounce Christianity or all that marrying business, but we do know that Claudius, a nasty emperor, had Valentinus stoned, then beaten to death with clubs. To express his displeasure further, he had the priest beheaded on Feb. 14, around the year 270.

Legends swirl around the Christian martyr. We do know that Pope Julius I is said to have built a church near Ponte Mole to Valentinus’ memory. The greatest part of his relics are now in the church of St. Praxedes. His name is celebrated as that of an illustrious martyr in the sacramentary of St. Gregory and all other martyr-ologies on this day.

Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to St. Valentine. In A.D. 496 Pope Gelasius finally marked Feb. 14 as Valentine’s Day, a celebration in honor of Valentinus’ martyrdom.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages but written valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine card dating from that period is on display at the British Museum. The first commercial Valentine’s Day greeting cards produced in the U.S. were created in the 1840s by Esther A. Howland. Howland, known as the Mother of the Valentine, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.”

I said scrap.

According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second-largest card-sending holiday of the year. An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas.

Approximately 85 percent of all valentines are purchased by women. In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia.

Now when you deliver that valentine this year just give a thought to Valentinus, who made it all possible. And be thankful you don’t have to sacrifice a goat.

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