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A Tradition Dating Back to Roman Times

The roots of St Valentine’s Day stretch back to pre-Christian days to the ancient Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, celebrat- ed on February 15. Dedicated to Rome’s twin founders Romulus and Remus, famously suckled by a she-wolf (lupa), and Faunus, the god of agriculture, the festival involved a rite in which the blood of a sacrificed animal was sprinkled over crops and women alike in order to promote fertility. Accord- ing to legend, these newly nubile young women also put their names into an urn to be selected by lot and subsequently paired up with the city’s bachelors for the following year.

Lupercalia was outlawed under Christianity’s disapproving gaze until a papal decree in the fifth century declared February 14 Saint Valentine’s Day. History (and supposition) offer several contenders for the romantic soul after whom it was named, including a martyred priest named Valentine who allegedly performed marriag- es for young lovers in defiance of a ban by Emperor Claudius (implemented due to the belief that single men made better soldiers); and an incarcerated Valentine who supposedly fell in love with his jailor’s daughter, and whose signed love letter is credited with being the first ‘valentine’.

The custom of exchanging val- entines can be traced back to 1415 and another jail cell, where Charles, Duke of Orleans wrote the first recorded valentine to his wife while imprisoned in the Tow- er of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Valen- tine’s Day appears in both Chaucer and Shakespeare in its context as a celebration of lovers, and by 1797 the exchange of handcrafted love notes and tokens had become so popular that The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published to aid heartsore young men in the crafting of suitable messages to their beloveds.

By the nineteenth century, mass production, the availability of cheap paper lace and an efficient postal system provided the perfect ingredients to turn sentiment into an enterprise, culminating in the first Hallmark Valentine’s Day card in 1913 – and we’ve never looked back: more than a billion valen- tines are exchanged each year.

For singles who dread the oncoming tide of sugary sentiment and resent the price spikes associated with it, take heart: Italy provides relief in the form of St Faustino, the so-called ‘Saint of Singles’. A Christian martyr executed under Hadrian in 120AD and the patron saint of Brescia, this obscure saint offers salvation by virtue of the fact that his feast day falls on February 15, providing an opportunity to toast the passing of St Valentine’s Day for another year.

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