Romantic greeting cards, chocolate hearts, red roses, and wine come quickly to mind when we think of Valentine’s Day. Sadly, February 14 has a long and not-so-sweet history dating back over 2000 years.
The ancient Romans celebrated the fertility festival of Lupercalia annually from February 13 – 15. In a sacred grotto in Rome’s Palatine Hill, priests known as Luperci sacrificed two goats and a dog to the god of agriculture and shepherds, Lupercus (“he who wards off the wolf”). The priests’ foreheads were touched with blood, then wiped clean with wool dipped in milk. The men proceeded to run through the streets whipping women and crops with thongs made from the hides of the goats to promote fertility. This continued until approximately 498 C.E., when Pope Galesius I finally supressed the pagan ritual, turning February 14 into a Christian feast day in honor of Saint Valentine.
According to Catholic tradition, there were three early Christian saints by the name of Valentine, all of whom were martyred on February 14 in various years. The most famous of these was a priest who lived in 3rd century Rome, and attracted the disfavor of the current Roman emperor, Claudius II. Saint Valentine – although of course not yet a saint – was holding secret marriage ceremonies for young lovers, in opposition to the emperor’s decree prohibiting marriage for young men (he believed that marriage made soldiers weak). Valentine was arrested, beaten, stoned, and condemned to death. Legend has it that while awaiting execution, Valentine healed the blind daughter of his jailor, Asterius. Before his death, Valentine wrote a farewell letter to Asterius’ daughter, to whom he had become somewhat attached, signing it, “From Your Valentine.” It is believed that Valentine was executed on February 14, in the year 270 C.E. His flower-crowned skull now resides in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.
More recently, February 14 became infamous for Chicago’s 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. A gang war between Al Capone and Bugs Moran ended violently with Capone’s men lining up and shooting seven of Moran’s men. On the seven year anniversary of the massacre Jack McGurn, one of Capone’s hit men, was killed by machine gun fire in a Chicago bowling alley.
Allied Air Forces dropped more than 3900 tons of high explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the German city of Dresden between February 13 – 15, 1945, killing an estimated 22,000 – 25,000 people. On that very February 14, the U.S. Army Air Force carpet-bombed the city of Prague, apparently by mistake (they were supposed to be aiming for Dresden). Many homes and historical sites were destroyed. Over 700 people were killed, nearly 2000 injured. All of the casualties were civilians.
As for the romantic Valentine’s Day greeting card? One of the earliest on record was written in 1415 C.E. by Charles, Duke of Orléans, to his wife, Bonne of Armagnac, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. She died before they could be reunited.