America Sabbat: Valentine's Day

Gentle Reader, due to a great many eventful circumstances, I am a bit late in getting up my Valentine's Day post, but nonetheless, here it is. Thanks for reading.

Valentine's Day: throwback to an ancient Roman pagan festival? Apocryphal Christian holiday? Commercial nightmare?

Yes. All of the above.

We begin our investigation with a glimpse into ancient Rome and the festival of Lupercalia, the wolf-festival.

Lupercalia, a pagan Roman holiday celebrating the Roman god Lupercus (of shepherds), honored the founding of His temple between Feb. 13 and Feb. 15 each year. According to historian Justin, Lupercus, "the Lycaean god, whom the Greeks call Pan" was depicted nude save for goatskin. Annually, a dog and a goat were sacrified at the cave where Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome) were said to have been suckled by a wolf bitch. Salt mealcakes, prepared by the Vestal Virgins, were featured in the sacrifice as well.

Lupa, the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus, is also honored during the festival, as the nurturer of new life and Spring. Priests known as the Luperci would begin the festivities by sacrificing two male goats and a dog, then mark their brows with the blood. They would wipe the bloody sacrificial knife with wool soaked in milk, then engage in ritual laughter. I surmise that this is somehow symbolic of them aspecting the wolf spirit experiencing the joy of the kill, acknowledging that life feeds on life. (Like the Tool song.)

After this, the Luperci, often sons of senators and other high-ranking individuals, would then run through the streets naked, flailing the upturned palms of Roman matrons and young women with flayed goatskin to encourage fertility, healthy pregnancies, and easy deliveries. The ruling class abandoned the practice in 44 BCE under the leadership of Mark Antony, but the Roman Senate continued to support the enjoyment of the festival for the underclasses. Thus the working class and pagan folks did not let the festival die until the 5th century, under duress from Pope Gelasius I, who wrote to the Roman Senate, chastising them: "If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery." Gelasius made his case and the festival was retired.

An alternate, and less historically accurate, glimpse into Valentine's Day pegs St. Valentine as a martyr who died for performing marriages under the reign of Emperor Claudius II, who had banned marriage as a way to encourage young men to join his army. University of Colorado at Boulder Classics professor Noel Lenski says, "this may be a convenient explanation for what happened at Lupercalia." St. Valentine was ostensibly executed for his crime on Feb 14, 270 CE.

Obviously, Valentine's Day gives us a very informative peek into the ways in which history has been re-written to serve the needs of religious and political matters. When this kind of creative history happens, it can shift cultural understanding toward a particular agenda. In this case...who does not feel moved to the defense of love?

Except...even the apocryphal story of St. Valentine privileges a largely political and class-based institution of the time: marriage. At that time, marriage was more about property than love or free will for many women. To this day, marriage in many Christian religions is the provenance of the heterosexual. So, when we really think about it, this story, meant to bestir the heart in a favorable direction toward St. Valentine as the great defender of love, is actually pointing to him as the great defender of an institution of privilege and religious/governmental regulation. Hmmm...not much has changed in that sense if you look at even some peoples' contemporary stances on marriage in both the spheres of church and state.

Valentine's Day is not only fraught with historical problems, it is a seriously distressing state of cultural affairs to see V-Day by the numbers. I do not write "seriously distressing" lightly here.

According to the US National Retail Foundation (NRF), the 2012 holiday alone was expected to generate $17.6 BILLION YES I SAID BILLION in retail sales. The 2011 V-Day holiday generated $15.7 BILLION. (I might need to capitalize BILLION every time I write it, because that number is so staggering to me.)

The NRF further reports the average consumer was expecting to spend $126.03 on gifts, with $4.52 of that going toward pets. OK, I love my cats dearly and I'm willing to give them treats now and then, but honestly? A Valentine's Day present? Really? That seems a bit much. Do I sound jaded writing this? I'm not sure I mind.

Behavioral Economics professor Daniel Ariely of Duke University attributes this overblown spending around this particular holiday to be the product of herd mentality. "Herds give us a sense of what is normative behavior - not normative in terms of rational but normative in terms of this is how people behave," he said.

The Greeting Card Association (GCA) reports an average of 190 million Valentine's Day cards sent annually, not including the uncounted children's cards. Mass production of Valentine's Day notes started in the early 1900's.

"Giving your sweetheart or someone a Valentine's Day card is a deep-seated cultural tradition in the United States. We don't see that changing," said Barbara Miller, spokesperson for the GCA.

I want a do-over of how we do values and cultural tradition in this country. Can I ask for that? I'm all for celebrating love, but why not celebrate love with, oh, loving better? Why celebrate it with crazy spending when we could be using that money for something more important than tearing down trees to make planting trees, for example?

Diabetes anyone? The National Confectioner's Association reports an average BILLION dollars in sales of candy, 75% of which comes from the sale of chocolate. (OK, I can't be too self-righteous about that one. I am a big fan of chocolate.) Newest candy heart message: "Tweet me." (facepalm)

In our American Sabbats: Valentine's Day discussion held at The Sacred Well on Feb 15, we lit candles and beckoned Aphrodite to come and re-instill the values of true, deep, meaningful love to our culture, love from the heart, and we each vowed to embody that more mindfully in our daily lives. I want to BE LOVE ALWAYS, not just this one day. And while I appreciate the symbolic value of the holiday, I think we need to change our game plan on this one.

Next year for Valentine's Day, I'm planting trees.

Aforementioned data from National Geographic.