The root of Valentines Day rituals

by Elaine Voci, Ph.D. Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant®

Modern life is full of rituals, and some are so widely accepted that they are taken for granted.  Valentine’s Day, held on February 14th of every year, is a good example of a ritual that is enacted in much of the Western world; it has grown into an $18 billion a year celebration in the U.S. alone.  What makes Valentine’s Day rituals so appealing to so many people?

For openers, it has a fascinating and colorful history rooted in an ancient Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia that was held annually in mid-February to celebrate spring, fertility and love.  The event featured a giant matchmaking lottery.  Single girls would write their names on papers which were placed in giant urns.  Bachelors would pick a girl’s name out and then spend the entire year caring for her. (One way to ensure fertility in the community.) The ritual continued into France and England during the Middle Ages with an added feature:  some bachelors would draw a heart on their sleeve with their chosen girl’s name written in the middle of it – hence the origin of the phrase to “wear your heart on your sleeve.”

The story took an interesting turn in the third century when Roman Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage because he wanted to go to war and was convinced that if men were happy at home they wouldn’t want to leave. A Christian priest whose name was – wait for it – Valentine, felt sorry for couples and married them in secret defiance of the Emperor.  When Claudius found out, he promptly put Valentine in jail and then had him executed on – yes, February 14th. To add a romantic twist to this tale, it seems that Valentine himself developed a loving relationship with the jail keeper’s blind daughter during his imprisonment, and signed all his letters to her with “from your Valentine.”

Modern Valentine’s Day rituals continue to preserve this cultural heritage that emphasizes romantic love between couples, and they also promote and honor love itself.   We celebrate love because we know how important it is to our life, to our health and well-being, to our global connection with the rest of the human family, and to our identity and sense of place first formed in relationships that are with us from the womb to the tomb.  Here are three rituals for Valentine’s Day in honor of Love:

  • Make a commitment to love yourself – be kind, caring and compassionate and even consider “marrying” yourself by writing a set of vows that you pledge to live out for the rest of your life.
  • Soak in a tub of herbal essence that you and your sweetheart can enjoy together; Epson salts now come in a wide variety of scents, you can add fresh rose petals, lavender oil or even a half-dozen cloth bags of herbal teas like chamomile, peppermint, or orange flavored to make your soak a healing and sensual experience that could become a regular ritual.
  • Adopt a rescue dog – you will never know love the way a shelter animal loves you; that precious love, so deep and heartfelt, will heal you both on a daily basis

It is understood that ritual is one of the defining characteristics of being human and we are drawn to rituals of love as expressions of our highest ideals and our deepest feelings; even the most taciturn among us finds it hard to resist sending Valentine’s cards and sharing in the celebrations that mark this special day.  As Thomas Merton wrote, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.”


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