February has long been associated with love and romance, going back to the days of early Rome. Back then, February was the month in which people celebrated Lupercalia,or "Wolf Festival,"that was partly in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.
Lupercalia was a very ancient, possibly pre-Roman pastoral festival, observed on February 13 through 15 to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. The religious ceremonies were directed by the Luperci, the "brothers of the wolf (lupus)", a corporation of priests of Faunus, dressed only in a goatskin. As Lupercalia evolved and time went on, it morphed into a festival honoring fertility and the coming of spring. Lupercalia subsumed Februa, a possibly earlier-origin spring cleansing ritual held on the same date, which gives the month of February its name.
Lupercalia's Love Lottery
For part of the celebration, young women would place their names in an urn. Eligible men would draw a name and the couple would pair of for the rest of the festival -- sometimes even longer. As Christianity progressed into Rome, the practice was decried as Pagan and immoral, and done away with by Pope Gelasius around 500 C.E. Although recently there's been some scholarly debate about the existence of the Lupercalia lottery, it's still a legend that brings to mind ancient matchmaking rituals -- perfect for this time of year!
A More Spiritual Celebration: Around the same time that the love lottery was being eliminated, Gelasius had a brilliant idea. Why not replace the lottery with something a bit more spiritual? He changed the love lottery to a lottery of the Saints -- instead of pulling a pretty girl's name from the urn, young men pulled the name of a saint. The challenge for these bachelors was to try to be more saint-like in the coming year, studying and learning about the messages of their individual saint.
Who Was Valentine, Anyway?: While he was trying to convince Rome's young nobleman to be more saintly, Pope Gelasis also declared St. Valentine (more on him in just a bit) the patron saint of lovers, and his day was to be held every year on February 14. There is some question about who St. Valentine actually was -- he may have been a priest during the reign of the Emperor Claudius.
The legend is that the young priest, Valentine, disobeyed Claudius by performing wedding ceremonies for young men, when the Emperor preferred to see them roped into military service rather than marriage. While imprisoned, Valentine fell in love with a young girl who visited him, perhaps the daughter of the jailer. Before he was executed, he allegedly sent her a letter, signed, From your Valentine. No one knows if this story is true, but it certainly makes St. Valentine a romantic and tragic hero.
The Christian church had a hard time maintaining some of these traditions, and for a while St. Valentine's Day disappeared off the radar. In fact, during medieval times the lover's lottery regained popularity -- chivalrous young men paired off with ladies, and wore the names of their lover on their sleeves for a year.
Modern Valentine's Day Around the end of the 18th century, Valentine's Day cards began to appear. Small pamphlets were published, with sentimental poems that young men could copy and send to the object of their affections. Eventually, printing houses learned there was a profit to be made in pre-made cards, complete with romantic pictures and love-themed verse. The first American Valentine cards were created by Esther Howland in the 1870s, according to Victorian Treasury. Other than Christmas, more cards are exchanged at Valentine's Day than any other time of the year.