Think naked Romans, paganism, and whips…
More than a Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, is rooted in pagan partying.
This lovers’ holiday traces its roots to raucous annual Roman festivals where men stripped naked, grabbed goat- or dog-skin whips, and spanked young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility, so says classics professor Noel Lenski at Univ. of Colorado, Boulder.
The annual pagan celebration, called Lupercalia, was held every year from February 13th to the 15th, and remained wildly popular well into the fifth century A.D.—at least 150 years after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Lupercalia was “clearly a very popular thing, even in an environment where the [ancient] Christians are trying to close it down,” Lenski said. “So there’s reason to think that the Christians might instead have said, OK, we’ll just call this a Christian festival.”
The church pegged the festival to the legend of St. Valentine. The story goes that in the third century A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius II, seeking to bolster his army, forbade young men to marry. Valentine, flouted the ban, performing marriages in secret. For his defiance, Valentine was executed in A.D. 270—on February 14.
Today’s relatively tame Valentine’s Day celebration is big business—with the 2012 holiday expected to generate $17.6 billion in retail sales in the United States. That’s up from last year’s $15.7 billion, according to an annual survey by the U.S. National Retail Federation.