Yes, Valentine’s Day. A moment in the year when we put aside the distractions of everyday life and take time to celebrate the one we love. It’s easy to dismiss Valentine’s Day as a ‘Hallmark holiday’ but despite the commercialisation, Valentine’s Day has a long heritage, dating back more than two millennia in Europe. So, where does it come from?
Like many Christian festivals, Valentine’s Day has its roots in pagan ritual, in this case, the Roman festival of Lupercalia. From its beginnings it was a fertility festival. The celebrations were held over three days in mid-February and are very interesting. If I were going to describe them I would have to use the words, ‘naked’, ‘whipping’ and ‘a large urn’. But I am not going to describe it here except to say that nobody was forced to do it, it was very much an opt-in event.
The Martyr Valentine
Lupercalia, being very popular, survived the advent of Christianity until the 5th Century when Pope Gelasius replaced it with a festival honouring the martyr Valentine which was less fun. There are several early martyrs of this name, but our Valentine is usually believed to be the 3rd century bishop of Terni, Amelia and (honestly) Narnia (which, it turns out, is not in a wardrobe but actually in Central Italy near Umbria). The bishop was imprisoned by the Romans for marrying Roman soldiers (that’s marrying Roman soldiers to their girlfriends, not…) which was illegal at the time.
Valentine is said to have been martyred by stoning (projectile force trauma), clubbing (blunt force trauma) and, finally, decapitation (sharp force trauma). This is what forensic anthropologists call ‘a full house’. The story of Valentine’s martyrdom has an interesting local twist in that some of his blood and bone are alleged to be held at the church of Blessed St John Duns Scotus in the Gorbals, though this claim is the subject of a furious legal battle with friars at Dublin’s Whitefriars Church who say they hold the true relics.
Valentine in the 20th Century
The modern Valentine’s Day is probably most closely associated with the 1929 Valentine Day’s Massacre in which Al Capone ordered the slaughter of seven members of Bugs Moran’s Irish-American gang to wrest control of the Chicago rackets. While not overtly romantic in nature, the massacre does illustrate a touching fidelity to a gangland ‘code of honour’ in that Frank Gusenberg, the one man carried alive from the bloody carnage, refused to betray his assailants. When asked by the police, ‘who shot you’? He answered, ‘No one shot me’, before dying of the fourteen Thompson submachine gun bullets which riddled his mangled body.
Finally this brings us right up to date with the Valentine’s Day of more recent times in which couples buy each other cards and sometimes a nice present. It is rarely fatal.