Wednesday, February 15, 2012

February Mash-Up: an examination of holidays and traditions

Chocolate Valentines
     Valentine's Day is a welcome brightness to a dreary February.  Although I'm not completely devoted to this holiday of romantic love, I do enjoy the cheery colors, cut paper decorations, and the snarky conversation heart candy.  In grade school I was much more fond of the holiday and met it with great anticipation and expectation.  I was an expert at reading into those clever superhero messages.  "You Make My Spidey Senses Tingle" was enough to give me hope for weeks to come.  As an adult the holiday means little more to me than an excuse to put away red and green and pull out red . . . and pink, and purple.  Furthermore, it is challenging to find romance in the thick of the zealous marketing efforts of clever card and candy companies.  So why do we celebrate romantic love on the 14th of February, what is its origin, and what does a Roman, Christian martyr have to do with any of it?
    Actually there is evidence of three St. Valentines, all martyred and possessing legends relating empathy and perhaps romantic love.  However, the establishment of a feast day was motivated by more than their lives and deeds.  It seems that the fifth century Pope Gelasius purposefully declared the 14th of February devoted to one of these martyrs as a counter to the popular Roman ritual of Lupercalia which occurred February 13 -15.  As is often the case, the Christian feast day was established as a means to de-emphasize its pagan predecessor.  Although the two holidays share a day on the calendar, they have little else in common.
     Lupercalia's inception dates back to the 5th century BC, and the tradition endured until 5th century AD with the official initiation of St. Valentine's Day.  In the old Roman calendar, February rounded out the year.  As the etymology of February indicates,  this month was dedicated to purification in preparation for the new year.  (Februa means month of purification.)   Lupercalia's ceremonies referenced the founding of Rome.  Luper meaning wolf, was set in the cave in which the legendary she-wolf nursed the founders of the eternal city, Romulus and Remus.  In the same cave they sacrificed a goat for fertility and a dog for purity.  The blood of the goat was smeared on the foreheads of two naked priests called Luperci and then wiped clean with wool dipped in milk.  The Luperci would then commence in chasing young women around the Palatine hill whipping their exposed backs with strips of goat skin.  This gesture (probably symbolic of rape) brought good luck, purification, and fertility to women recently married or barren.  After feasting and other revelry, some believe that there was a lottery to match eligible young adults together ,and at the end of the year, these pairings would often result in marriage.  In other words, it was for ancient Rome.
     The perseverance  of Lupercalia is stunning.  Although the population who practiced the rituals changed through its thousand years from patrician families to commoners, it survived through centuries of Christianity.  It required banishment dictated by the Pope and the establishment of St. Valentine's day to really squelch the tradition.  Ironically, in 1969 the Pope removed February 14th as one of its feast days and thereby disassociated the church from the secular ritual that has evolved over the last seven centuries.  It was Chaucer and the people of the middle ages who popularized romantic love, and somehow between Chaucer's love poem and the belief that February was the month of breeding birds that February 14th was associated with Romantic love.  In recognition of their popular saint they gifted cards and baked treats for one another in gray Februaries which must have been particularly gloomy in the dark ages. 
     What will happen to our February rituals and holidays over the next centuries?  In what traditions will we continue to partake and which ones will become obsolete?  One thing is for certain, if latest scientific studies are accurate, romantic love is biologically addictive.  Hence, we will be forever finding and inventing ways to get our fix whether it be through the thrill of a chase or the words of a poem.
      A few weeks ago, I had a haunting dream in which I was being hunted by a haggard wolf with a steely gaze.  She watched me very carefully and closely followed me no matter how I tried to escape.  My only defensive action was to shield my toddler from her hungry jaws.  It is only now after researching Lupercalia that I am reminded that the wolf was the Lupa of early Rome.  I have sympathy for her now as I imagine her pulling those quivering twins out of the Tiber and generously nursing them in her protective cave.  Now that is love.    


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