When it comes to tradition, the red rose isn’t even the flower of Saint Valentine, say some. That honour goes to the humble, seasonal, crocus
There are many different legends suggesting the origins of St Valentine’s Day and why it is celebrated in the middle of February.
Some of them point to Valentine’s death or burial around A.D. 270, others point to the early Christian church’s assimilation of an earlier pagan Roman fertility festival, Lupercalia, traditionally held at this time, usually 15 February.
Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Members of an order of Roman priests, Luperci, would gather at the cave said to be the sacred place that the defenceless children Romulus and Remus were cared for by the shewolf, their adopted mother.
The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, “for purification”, tear the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. The symbolic touch was supposed to confer greater fertility.
Later that same day, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn and the city’s bachelors would each choose a name and be paired for the year with the woman whose name they had drawn, the matches often ending in marriage. During the celebrations there was much nudity and ribaldry.
Lupercalia was deemed “unChristian” and outlawed at the end of the 5th century by Pope Gelasius l who, in turn, declared 14 February to be St. Valentine’s Day. This was retalliation for Emperor Claudius II’s executions of two men, both named Valentine, on 14 February of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Naming the day after them was a celebration of their Christian martyrdom.
One of the most popular accounts of an otherwise dark tale was that Valentine was imprisoned by the Romans for failing to reject his Christian beliefs. In prison he became friendly with the jailor and educated his blind daughter, Julia, in arithmetic, history, literature and Christianity, while walking in the nearby woods and fields.
Valentinus wrote a letter to Julia to be opened on the day of his execution — 14 February AD 270. Upon opening it, she could miraculously see and the first thing her eyes landed upon was a yellow crocus which fell from the letter. The letter encouraged her to keep her faith in God and was signed “Your Valentine”.
Valentine greetings as we know them were popular in the Middle Ages and the first written Valentine’s messages appearing around 1400 with the oldest known Valentine greeting still in existence today being a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.